Friday, July 14, 2006


One of the things I love about this Yahoo Answers thing is reading what other people write. For example, someone wanted to know why people lie. An earnest question that deserved a thoughtful response.

But as I started wading through the answers, I was shocked to read some of the crap people were offering up. Many of the responses were written by people who were clearly under the impression they had never told a lie in their life. People were ripping on people who tell lies, casting stones from within their glass houses, accusing liars of having genetic deficiencies and sociopathic tendencies. Yes, really. Someone actually wrote that we lie because of a "flaw in our genetic makeup."

I started to wonder if this Yahoo Answers thing was a good idea after all, what with all the garbage being passed around as fact. So I decided to pile some garbage of my own into the heap, figuring my garbage would be a little easier to sort through, and, hopefully, a little closer to the truth.

So why DO people lie?

Flaws in our genetic make up? I don't think so. Let's not make this out to be any more complicated than it is.

Lying is a form of manipulation. It stems from our desire to exert influence over our surroundings. We lie when it is to our advantage to do so - to cover things up, to protect our reputation, to get something we want, to hurt people, to make us look better, etc. There are plenty of specific reasons people lie, but they all have to do with one thing: control.

Lying is learned behavior. Even while our parents may teach us that lying is wrong, we all practice it in some form, and starting at an early age. Most of us even lie to ourselves and don't realize we're doing it. Or, we lie to our loved ones because we know the truth would hurt them. Lying is natural, even if we feel guilty when we do it.

Lying is a communications strategy. Many believe a poor one, but one that has been around since we first started speaking to one another, and one that doesn't figure to go away any time soon. There's too much value in being able to shape the perceptions of others with a few words, albiet false ones. And there is a great deal of power in a good mistruth; the control afforded by a good lie is too often too tempting for even the most well-intended individuals.

Part of growing up is learning the power of a good lie. Children experiment with lying as soon as they realize they can influence the behavior of the people around them with the things they say. Most of the time they are reprimanded for it and told that lying is not a successful strategy because the truth is always a better policy. Think Peter and the Wolf.

But as we get older, we come to understand that the truth hurts. So we judiciously adopt a policy of telling the truth when it makes sense, and lying when we need to in order to get the things we want - without hurting the people we love if possble. The risk in lying, of course, is that once a lie has been discovered, it becomes difficult for people to trust you. That's why people will go to great lengths to protect a good lie, often telling more lies to cover up the original one. What a tangled web we weave when at first we practice to deceive.

There's a lot of value in giving someone our word. And when there's no longer currency in that, we become powerless. So while lying can afford us a little control now and then, those who do it as a matter of custom do not tend to fare well in the long term.

In today's interconnected world - a world in which we depend on the actions of others to survive - lying is central to the human experience. This is not to paint all of humanity as a caldron of deception, but let's at least acknowledge the difficulty we would encounter living life out loud. If we always spoke exactly what we thought, no one would have anything to do with us. That's because our self-interests often conflict with the self-intrerests of those around us. And even the most trustworthy among us are capable of withholding the truth now and again if it is in their self-interest.

But don't despair - while lying is normal, it is not the norm. Most people tell the truth most of the time. Just be careful who you choose to believe and when. Ask yourself what's in it for them, as life is about incentive. If the incentive is high enough, people will lie to you. And you will lie to them.

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