The Cost of Lying

Nietzsche couldn’t be any more correct when he said that lying is a condition of life. We lie for insignificant things and there are also those big fat lies. Though societal values largely uphold lying as a sin and emphasize on the virtues of speaking the truth, we do know that honesty is not practical enough to live in this world. This same society gives conflicting messages and often encourages lying. We do lie to our parents about having a boyfriend or bunking classes (if you’re still studying) because you know if you spoke the truth, you couldn’t be doing any of these things, and instead will be punished heavily. You obviously are not going to run to your crush and bare your heart because lying is bad. Lying is a part and parcel of many occupations like Public Relations which look at image ‘building’ of a product/group/person. Many salespersons exaggerate or lie outright about a product. A lawyer’s main focus is always to win a case for their client, even if they know that their client is wrong or guilty.

There are three types of lying- lying by commission, i.e. deliberately lying, lying by omission, i.e. leaving out facts to suggest otherwise, and paltering, i.e. using truth to mislead. A good example of paltering would be Maneka Gandhi’s assertion that India’s rape problem is exaggerated. She used a statistic where India ranked among the lowest four in terms of rape cases and Sweden ranked first, not mentioning how these rates are measured in both the countries. Trump asserting that more people attended his inauguration than Obama’s through a photo taken from the podium, which has been debunked as an optical illusion, ignoring other photos clearly showing otherwise, is another example. But research indicates that even though we may not consider them as lies, they are seen just as harshly by people and are considered nothing less than deception. This explains why Sean Spicer’s ‘alternative facts’ became a huge viral meme sensation, after he defended Trump’s crowd size allegations.

Lying has both positive and negative implications. Some lies are just harmless social lubricants. We often tell lies that we consider insignificant, to make a good impression upon others and to get along with others. Psychologist, Robert Feldman, says that we often lie when our self-esteem is threatened. For example, you may lie about knowing a lot about football to a group of football enthusiasts talking fervently about a team, even though the only names you know are Messi and Ronaldo, just to be included in the conversation. We also lie about liking something more(fake positives) or less (fake negatives) than we actually do, just to get along with people. Remember Regina George’s ‘I LOVE your skirt! Where did you get it?’ in Mean Girls? We lie to make a good and consistent impression upon people. For example, you may lie about not liking Honey Singh’s songs because you said you didn’t like how women are objectified in the media earlier, even though you actively listen to his songs. So, we see, that always being brutally honest can take a toll on one’s social life.

Another aspect of lying is telling noble lies- lies for the ‘greater good’. The Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar who has emphasized on the virtue of speaking truth many times says that a lie can be considered as truth- if it doesn’t harm anyone and is beneficial for people. A good pop-culture example will be Batman taking on the blame for killing Harvey Dent, so that citizens do not lose faith in the state in the movie ‘The Dark Knight’.

Different cultures have different attitudes to lying. In a study of 31 Senior Citizen in Los Angeles, 90% of Americans of European and African ancestry said patients should be informed of life-threatening conditions, whereas only about half amount of Korean-Americans agreed. Westerners often talk about ethics in some Asian cultures, where lying to achieve an aim is considered a sign of smartness and a necessity and not really a lie.

Some amount of lying may actually be beneficial to our mental health. Self-deception can be beneficial, especially in situations we know we don’t stand a chance or a particularly difficult job. Indeed, there is a link between self-deception and depression. People with depression often underestimate the amount of control they have in a situation. Psychologist von Hippel sees self deception as information processing bias where individual prioritises welcome information over unwelcome ones. This operates through many ways like rationalizing, convincing ourselves that a lie is true, selective attention and biased interpretation of a situation. The level of self-consciousness can vary, with some processes deceiving both conscious and unconscious aspects, and some processes only the conscious aspects of the self.  Self- deception doesn’t result in costly cognitive load associated with deception and can minimize retribution if deception is discovered   

Lying is not always a social good; it can be manipulative and Machiavellian in its intent. What one may regard as a harmless lie, may not be so harmless to another. Scores of parents and psychologists disagree about lying to children about the existence of Santa as they believe it will lead to a great disappointment when children eventually find out. They believe the holiday will lose its magic and will build distrust between the parent and the child (there are plenty who disagree). But the point is, lies shouldn’t be fit in inflexible white-or-black compartments- the cost of lying really depends on nature of lie, culture, context, and the person to whom you’re lying. Some lies can actually be necessary for normal social interactions and sometimes good for psychological well-being. But lying may sow the seeds of anger and distrust among people that have been lied to, especially in cases where the lying was for  self-interest than for prosocial purposes. Further, there is discomfort associated with telling even small lies. Thinking of an acceptable lie, following it up with further lies, and remembering what we lied about, can cause huge cognitive load and stress. As we know, stress negatively impacts our mental and physical health. Even if we escape this discomfort and try to feel morally good by omitting facts and twisting truth to suit our agenda, we have to pay the same costs as lying. A good idea, therefore, would be to stick to small white lies and continue to feel morally comfortable.  

By Indumathi S