Are we natural-born liars?

Loren Rosson[Editor’s note: Our Adult Summer Reading Program, Literary Elements, has a science theme this year, so our Next Great Read reviewers will recommend several science books over the next three months. Here’s the first of them.]

“Deceit is the Cinderella of human nature, essential to our humanity but disowned by its perpetrators at every turn. It is normal, natural, and pervasive. It is not, as popular opinion would have it, reducible to mental illness or moral failure. Human society is a network of lies and deceptions that would collapse under the weight of too much honesty.” (Why We Lie, p. 2).

Philosophers have been arguing for centuries about the morality of lying. For some, lying is always wrong (Augustine, Wesley, Kant); for others it depends (Montaigne, Voltaire, Bacon); for others, it is very often a good thing.

Why We Lie

“Why We Lie” by David Livingstone Smith is available from the library in hardcover.

A scientific view of lying
The scientific perspective has been falling in line with the last group. In Why We Lie, David Livingstone Smith, director of the New England Institute for Cognitive Science and Evolutionary Studies, explains that human beings are a race of habitual liars and deceivers, and especially self-deceivers. We deceive others and ourselves all the time, because it’s advantageous to do so as a species.

This has been confirmed by fascinating studies. Psychologist Robert Feldman found that 60% of Americans tell on average two to three lies for every ten minutes of conversation.

The frequency applies to men and women equally, though the sexes tend to lie about different things: men to make themselves look better, women to make others feel good. He’s including all kinds of lies: socially acceptable lies (“I’m doing well today, thank you”), unacceptable lies, outrageous bald-faced lies (I love the example of the student who said he was a rock star and was later astonished that he told such a casual lie without even thinking about it), lies of omission (silent lies), and other forms of deception.

Self-deception helps us lie efficiently
According to Smith, self-deception soothes the stresses of life and in the process helps us lie efficiently to others. Once again the research is fascinating, and reveals the opposite of what we might expect: Depressed people deceive themselves far less than those who are mentally healthy. If the mentally ill are in closer touch with reality, then perhaps self-knowledge isn’t all it’s cracked up to be!

We claim to value truth as a moral virtue, and instill it in our children, but we are also at least dimly aware that too much honesty is antisocial and sometimes offensive.

But while Smith insists that we are natural-born liars, he points out that we have to be economical with lies, otherwise deception would become self-defeating (as it did for the boy who cried wolf).

Does this mean we should go ahead and “lie boldly”? Smith concludes:

“If we cannot transcend the demon, because we are the demon, we can at least try acknowledging its existence . . . I don’t for a minute believe that we can be taught not to deceive ourselves and others, and even if we could (by whom?), it would probably result in widespread unhappiness. . . But surely we can get rid of some of our surplus deceptions. Tolerating a measure of deception is one thing, but actively promoting it quite another. At a minimum, perhaps we can help each other acknowledge that we are all natural-born liars.” (p. 197)

In my next post, we’ll see what Smith has to say about human beings as “natural-born warmongers,” again from the perspective of evolutionary psychology.

Further reading on lying and deception:

About Loren Rosson

Loren Rosson heads up the circulation department at the Nashua Public Library. He's worked at the library since graduating from Lewis and Clark College, with the exception of the two years he spent in Lesotho with the Peace Corps, teaching high school.

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