Why We Lie: Because Society Tells Us To

October 15, 1996

Waltham, Mass. -- Philosophers since time immemorial have tried to define humans as moral beings. But a Brandeis professor says a classic example of our true nature can be found in our capacity to lie -- glibly, frequently and with the full approval of society.

"Most people couldn't get through a day without shading the truth," says Leonard Saxe, adjunct professor of psychology and adjunct research professor at the Heller School at Brandeis University. "We're taught as children that lying is bad, but as we enter more complicated environments of relationships, school or workplace, society really rewards us for lying and sometimes punishes us for telling the truth."

Saxe named statements such as '"you're late for the meeting; you better have a good excuse" as a common example of how we're encouraged to lie in daily life.

"If we admit that we just overslept, we're punished far more than if we lie and say we were stuck in traffic," he said.

Lying is done even in our closest personal relationships, Saxe said, with research showing that in 85% of couples interviewed, one or both individuals had lied about past relationships or recent indiscretions because they believed the truth would be destructive.

Part of the fear of telling the truth, Saxe says, comes from a growing society-wide mistrust of others, a kind of hysteria about dishonesty.

"Whatever bad thing someone says they did, we often believe they really did something much worse," Saxe said. "So when I consider whether to tell someone the truth about something bad, I hesitate because what if the person thinks I'm white-washing the situation and judges me for a greater crime? Maybe it's better to lie and avoid the issue altogether."

But Saxe counsels that society not despair of truth's triumph. Truth will out more often, he says, if we lower the risk of speaking it.

"When the stakes of admitting the truth are lower relative to the advantages of telling a lie, more people go ahead and tell the truth," he said, pointing to studies showing that when a test counted for less of a final grade, more college students admitted their poor performance was due to a hangover, rather than a more legitimate illness.

Saxe's thoughts on our lying side stem from his work in the psychology and validity of polygraph testing. Leonard Saxe is the principal investigator and author of a congressional report on polygraph testing and is a frequent expert witness on polygraph validity.

Polygraphy, or lie detector testing, measures a physiological response to the fear of being caught lying. Proponents say that an individual who is lying will display these responses, and an individual who is telling the truth won't. But Saxe views the test as only being able to detect fear. If the criminal isn't afraid of telling a lie, he or she won't exhibit any physiological responses to questions aimed at the truth, and the test won't work.

Saxe's goal is to make society understand that self-preservational lying is fundamental to human nature, but if we understand what causes it, we can begin to mitigate it.

Brandeis University

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