We’re a Culture of Liars

Categories: Ethics

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Newsweek has posted an interesting article on how:

We are a culture of liars, to put it bluntly, with deceit so deeply ingrained in our psyches that we hardly even notice we’re engaging in it. Spam e-mail, deceptive advertising, the everyday pleasantries we don’t really mean—”It’s so great to meet you!” “I love that dress”—have, as [psychologist Robert] Feldman puts it, become “an omnipresent white noise we’ve learned to tune out.”

Feldman explains that the average person tells at least three lies in the first 10 minutes of a conversation—a shocking thought at first, but not all that hard to believe on further reflection. What is concerning is that we are becoming more deceptive as a culture. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle: as lying becomes more pervasive, it becomes more acceptable, and becomes even more pervasive.

“There’s always been a lot of lying,” says Feldman, whose new book, The Liar in Your Life, came out this month. “But I do think we’re seeing a kind of cultural shift where we’re lying more, it’s easier to lie, and in some ways it’s almost more acceptable.” … [In the short term] all lies are [not] equally toxic: some are simply habitual—”My pleasure!”—while others might be altruistic. But each, Feldman argues, is harmful, because of the standard it creates. And the more lies we tell, even if they’re little white lies, the more deceptive we and society become.

As the article points out, “many of our social relationships are based on little white lies we tell each other. We deceive our children, only to be deceived by them in return.” We convince our young, impressionable kids that Santa Clause and the Easter Bunny are real, only for them to discover when they get older that it was all simply a lie “to make them feel better.” And then we wonder why our culture gets increasingly dishonest. (This is of course only one small example, though it’s a memorable one for most.)

The two most interesting takeaways of the article, however, aren’t so much the standard observations of how untruthful we are as a culture (not all that newsworthy). Instead:

  1. It’s amazing how socially unacceptable it actually is to tell the truth—when dishonesty is so firmly ingrained at the level of small talk and social rituals, it’s startling and often grating to encounter total honesty (I immediately think of Mr. Darcy from Pride & Prejudice, who turned most everyone off with his blunt honesty). And it’s not generally in one’s best interest to be honest—since it’s socially “uncouth,” it doesn’t help one advance in society or in one’s career.
  2. It’s shocking how bad we are at telling truth from falsehood. According to the article, one study has concluded that we can differentiate a lie from the truth only 47% of the time (on average)—worse than random chance. I would suggest that one of the reasons we’re so poor at discerning truth and falsehood is that we tend to practice falsehood ourselves. The more exposure we have to it, the more we’re desensitized to it and the less we’re able to recognize it. If my theory is true, truthful people would tend to have a better truth/lie detector than less truthful people.

Nonetheless, the overall deceptiveness of our day-to-day interactions is not good for us or our society. Perhaps we should start thinking of telling the truth as a moral obligation, even when it’s not the socially expected thing (and even when it seems counterproductive).

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