Is Lying Bad for Us?

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There are mental and physical consequences, but we should strive to live more truthfully, regardless, to best understand reality.

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It has been estimated that the average American tells 11 lies per week. Is this bad for us? Suppose we knew that a lie would never be detected, nor would we be punished. Suppose we had some means of ensuring that the lie would never cause us any physical or psychological harm through loss of sleep or the like. Suppose even that telling the lie would actually redound to our benefit, at least in the sense that it would secure us the pleasure, status, wealth, or power that those fudging the truth commonly seek. Under these circumstances, would it still make sense to tell the truth? Or would lying becoming the prudent course of action?

In his 2005 runaway philosophy best seller, On Bullshit, Princeton University's Harry Frankfurt distinguishes between lying and what he called "bullshit." Though liars do not tell the truth, they care about it, while the bullshitter does not even care about the truth and seeks merely to impress. Liars tell deliberate untruths, while bullshitters merely do not admit when they do not know something. This is a particularly pervasive form of untruth in my own orbits, medicine and academia, where people wish others to believe that we know more than we do. So instead of saying, "I don't know," we make things up, merely giving the appearance of knowledge while actually saying nothing.

We live in a culture where it is increasingly common to encourage lying, and even to suppose that there is nothing problematic about doing so. In his new book, Heads in Beds, former hospitality industry employee Jacob Tomsky encourages hotel guests to bend the truth to their own advantage. For example, he states that guests need never pay for in-room movies. Here is how: "Watch and enjoy any movie. Call down and say you accidentally clicked on it. Or it froze near the end. Or it never even started. If the desk attendant offers to restart the movie, say you are about to go to bed or leave, and ask them instead just to remove the charges." Voila!

It could be that living with the guilt of lying is toxic in itself.

This bit of advice has been presented under the rubric, "Things every guest must know." It is only one of many points at which Tomsky shows guests how, by saying things that are not true, it is possible to avoid all manner of hotel charges. Ever pay for using items in a minibar? "These are the most often disputed charges on any hotel bill." After enjoying your snack or beverage, just say, "I never used these items." Worried about a same-day cancellation penalty? Call the property and tell the front desk you've had a personal emergency and won't arrive till next week. They will change the reservation. Then call back later and cancel next week's reservation at no penalty.

The implicit message? Honesty is for the unsophisticated.

One recent study laid the groundwork of a case for honesty by suggesting that liars are less healthy. Researchers at the University of Notre Dame followed 110 people over a period of ten weeks. Half of the participants were asked to stop lying over this period of time, and the other half were not. Both groups took weekly polygraph tests to determine how many times they had lied in the previous week. Those who were able to reduce by three the number of lies they told had four fewer mental health complaints (such as feeling tense) and three fewer physical health complaints (such as headaches) than those who did not.

Why might this be? A number of explanations might be invoked. One would be that it takes more work to lie, because liars need to think through everything they say to a much greater degree in order to avoid detection. Another might be that it is more stressful to lie. This is likely to be particularly true when lies are exposed, resulting in shame, embarrassment, and other unpleasantries. But even if the lying is never detected, the piling up of lies tends to make relationships with colleagues, friends, and family members shallower and less meaningful. And it could be that living with the guilt of lying is toxic in itself, especially in extreme cases where we are "living a lie." Could we lower our blood pressure, narrow our waistline, reduce our dependence on antidepressants, and perhaps even prolong our lives merely by exaggerating less about our accomplishments and making up fewer excuses when we are late or fail to complete tasks? Suppose the answer to this question is yes. Suppose that those who reduce their weekly lies by one-half lose on average ten pounds, report feeling more confident and content, and end up living on average an additional three years, compared to those who continue lying at the same rate. Would this reduce the level of mendacity in America?

I suspect the answer is a resounding yes. Many of us would tell fewer lies if we thought doing so would make us healthier. Of course, it would not be good news for some sectors of the health care industry, which have a vested interest in collecting revenue from efforts to improve health. What if the sales of antidepressants, the number psychologist and psychiatrist office visits, and the number of heart surgeries all declined? On the other hand, perhaps pharmaceuticals could be developed that would reduce the impulse to tell falsehoods, and mental health professionals and hospitals could offer tuition-generating courses on how to stop lying.

Whether the health care industry can monetize honesty or not, however, a more fundamental problem remains. Do we want to live in families, communities, or societies where truth telling needs to be incentivized? Do we want our spouses and children, our friends and neighbors, and our colleagues and associates to be asking themselves on a regular basis, "Really, why shouldn't I lie?" Surely most of us wish to live in a community where people can be relied on to tell the truth, regardless its effects on waistlines, pocketbooks, social standing, career prospects, and even our general level of happiness. Isn't there something inherently wrong with lying?

Perhaps the most powerful moral argument for honesty has to do with what the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre called "bad faith." Liars deceive others, but in a sense, liars also deceive themselves. When we lie we tend to distort our own view of reality, and the more often we lie, the more habitual this distortion becomes. Over time, the habit of lying divorces us further and further from reality, so we see less and less clearly the choices before us and what is at stake in them. Eventually, we may find ourselves unable to see what we are really doing and how it is affecting others and ourselves. We end up leading inauthentic and irresponsible lives.

To tell the truth is to live authentically and responsibly, to really live. At times we may make honest mistakes, misperceiving what is really happening, failing to see things in appropriate context, or even operating unknowingly on deliberate untruths. Whenever possible, however, we should be honest with others and ourselves. When we are honest, we ground ourselves most completely in the world we actually inhabit, being as real as we can with others, and reducing as much as possible the distance between the way things seem to be and the way they really are. In the final analysis, honesty means avoiding illusion and unreality, instead keeping life as real as we possibly can.

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Richard Gunderman, MD, PhD, is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is a professor of radiology, pediatrics, medical education, philosophy, liberal arts, and philanthropy, and vice-chair of the Radiology Department, at Indiana University. Gunderman's most recent book is X-Ray Vision.

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