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Does Everyone Lie?

Are we a Culture of Liars?

In the aftermath of the Lance Armstrong fraud perpetrated on the entire world we have to question whether everyone lies. Has it become so ingrained in our national psyche that lying has become the right way to behave?

I watched the Katie Couric interview a week ago Thursday and saw Manti Te'o commit a common lie. Katie asked whether he was truthful about his relationship with Lennay Kekua and Manti responded he never lied because whenever he was asked if he had ever met her, he skirted the issue. He admits to being less than forthcoming. But, a lie by omission is still a lie.

We say it is wrong to lie our kids and claim we don’t do it ourselves, yet lying is common, used to get out of tight situations, and part of the narcissistic behavior pattern that has enveloped Americans during the past twenty years or so. It has become part of our self-esteem – who we are and what we believe in. We live in a society where deception is thought of as nothing wrong. So what if we take advantage of others so long as it advances our own self-interests.

Liars think they have good reasons to lie, or good intentions. But the people being deceived don’t necessarily feel that way. I always tell my students that lying is wrong on many levels not the least of which is you are using people for your own personal gain. It goes against the basic “Golden Rule” that we should treat others the way we want to be treated. No one wants to be lied to so why should we lie to others?

On a practical level once we begin to lie or cover-up, we begin the slide down the proverbial ethical slippery slope where one lie leads to another and we struggle to get our story straight and consistent when we are questioned about our actions. This is the classic way police detectives catch criminals. They ask them to repeat their stories many times and in different ways to respond to probing questions. It’s hard to remember the initial lie and subsequent cover-ups, but not so with truthful statements.

"People do it because it works," said Robert Feldman, dean of social and behavioral sciences at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and a leading researcher on the psychology of lying. "We get away with lies all the time. Usually they're minor: 'I love your tie.' 'You did a great job.'

“The reality is, people lie all the time — ‘I love the report you gave,’ for instance — and tell you what you want to hear. Most of us lie, and most of us don’t get caught. If others hadn’t come forward, I’m sure Lance Armstrong still be living the lie.”

According to Feldman, Bill Clinton is a prime example of a public figure who lied to protect himself — by denying he had sexual relations with White House intern Monica Lewinsky — and later, after confessing, reclaimed some vestige of his credibility and moral standing. Clinton is now one of the country’s most admired public figures, if by no means universally beloved.

The popular television show House features a character who always tells people “everyone lies.” The statistics seem to bear this out. A variety of studies have been conducted about lying. One that was published in the Journal of Basic and Applied Social Psychology found that during a 10-minute conversation between two strangers, 60% lied at least once. Those liars told an average of two to three fibs.

According to a 2012 Gallup poll, 43 percent of Americans rate the country’s state of moral values as “poor,” and 73 percent indicate it’s getting worse. Dishonesty, deception, and integrity (or lack thereof) are part of the problem, respondents said, along with loss of religious faith and a breakdown in family structure.

Moral philosopher and author Sissela Bok, whose books include “Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life,” agrees that lying is prevalent throughout this society and others, often starting with small steps and at a young age. Step by step, the lies can build to what seems like the point of no return.

From a liar’s perspective, “You’re very optimistic about not getting caught,” adds Bok. “Also, you think you have good reasons to lie, or good intentions. But the people being deceived — investors, public citizens, whoever — don’t necessarily feel that way.”

So ask yourself whether you, too, lie all the time. Do you tell people what they want to hear rather than the truth? Do you deceive by obfuscating the truth?  Do you lie by omission?

Here are five common forms of lying in serious matters:

  • The potential worker who lies on his/her resume to get a job or get ahead
  • The husband who says he is working late when he is having an affair
  • The worker who takes long-term disability for a serious injury, only to be found puttering around the golf course
  • The guy who says his car broke down because he is late for work
  • The dog who ate your homework.

Lying has become endemic to our society. Perhaps the best way to deal with it is to assume whatever a person says to us when questioned about a serious matter that the opposite is true.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on February 1, 2013