“Truth” has been displaced by “believability:”
During years of studying deceptive behavior, psychologist Robert Feldman has made some intriguing discoveries. The older children get, the more deft they grow at lying. Popular teenagers are better liars than unpopular ones. We’re more likely to lie when our self-esteem is threatened. Such findings haven’t surprised the psychologist. Nonetheless, even Feldman was startled by what transpired when he gathered 121 college students to engage in ten-minute conversations with someone they had just met.
Most of the subjects carried their assignment off with aplomb. Feldman then asked them to watch videotapes of their brief conversations and tell him when they’d said something that wasn’t accurate. Most assured him that this wouldn’t be necessary, because everything they had said was accurate. That’s why the students were so surprised to see one lie after another emerge from their mouths on instant replay. During their ten-minute exchanges, members of this group told an average of three lies, or one every 3.3 minutes. Despite a few whoppers (one young man who couldn’t even play guitar said he was in a rock group that had just signed a big recording contract), most of their fibs were petty. There were just a lot of them. In conversations with Feldman afterward, few subjects seemed concerned about the lies they’d told. Lying is just part of everyday life, they told the University of Massachusetts psychologist. “Everybody does it,” they said. If this is the case, where does that leave the expectation that we can depend on each other’s basic honesty? “I think most of us assume that during the course of the day we are hearing the truth almost all the time,” Feldman concluded. “But I think the reality is very different.”
A Whole Lotta Lyin’
Many have already reached that conclusion on their own. There is a growing suspicion that more lies than ever are being told. To paraphrase the great social commentator Jerry Lee Lewis, a feeling is widespread that there’s a whole lotta lyin’ goin’ on. Until fairly recently there was little data to confirm or deny this hunch. Now, studies such as Feldman’s are putting it to the test. Preliminary results are disconcerting. One researcher after another has confirmed that lying has become as common as scratching itches.
When they had several hundred subjects record every lie they told in the course of a week, California sociologists Noelie Rodriguez and Alan Rygrave were as surprised as Robert Feldman was by the sheer volume of lies recorded. Even those who had assured the researchers they were truth tellers turned in journals filled with falsehoods. One woman promised a friend that she’d watch him play basketball when she had no intention of doing so. Another assured her husband that their tedious lovemaking was terrific. A mother told her child that they couldn’t go swimming because the pool was closed when it wasn’t. A healthy young man had his mother tell a friend he was too sick to go to the movies as he’d promised. Another said he’d help a friend move, then pretended he couldn’t because of a previous engagement. What struck researchers and subjects alike was how casually these lies were conveyed. Few were planned in advance. They slid into the conversational flow as easily as a car merging onto an uncrowded freeway. Based on their findings, Rodriguez and Rygrave speculated that during any conversation at all it could be that “lying is not only a possible action, but a preferred one.”
I think it’s fair to say that honesty is on the ropes. Deception has become commonplace at all levels of contemporary life. At one level that consists of “He’s in a meeting” or “No, that dress doesn’t make you look fat.” On another level it refers to “I never had sexual relations with that woman” or “We found the weapons of mass destruction.” High-profile dissemblers vie for headlines: fabulist college professors, fabricating journalists, stonewalling bishops, book-cooking executives and their friends the creative accountants. They are the most visible face of a far broader phenomenon: the routinization of dishonesty. I’m not talking just about those who try to fib their way out of a tight spot (“I wasn’t out drinking last night; I had to work late”) but casual lying done for no apparent reason (“Yes, I was a cheerleader in high school”).
Ludwig Wittgenstein once observed how often he lied when the truth would have done just as well. This Viennese philosopher has many modern disciples. The gap between truth and lies has shrunk to a sliver. Choosing which to tell is largely a matter of convenience. We lie for all the usual reasons, or for no apparent reason at all. It’s no longer assumed that truth telling is even our default setting. When Monica Lewinsky said she’d lied and been lied to all her life, few eyebrows were raised. Our attitudes toward lying have grown, to say the least, tolerant. “It’s now as acceptable to lie as it is to exceed the speed limit when driving,” observed British psychologist Philip Hodson. “Nobody thinks twice about it.”
The tattered condition of contemporary candor is suggested by how often we use phrases such as “quite frankly,” “let me be frank,” “let me be candid,” “truth be told,” “to tell you the truth,” “to be truthful,” “the truth is,” “truthfully,” “in all candor,” “in all honesty,” “in my honest opinion,” and “to be perfectly honest.” Such verbal tics are a rough gauge of how routinely we deceive each other. If we didn’t, why all the disclaimers?
Most of us lie and are lied to on a regular basis. These lies run the gamut from “I like sushi” to “I love you.” Even though we’re more likely to deceive strangers than friends, we save our most serious lies for those we care about most. Many have to do with sex. One priest said he rarely hears a confession that doesn’t include some element of sexual deceit. A colleague of his said it’s a rare day that a parishioner doesn’t confess to telling lies, sometimes with figures in hand (“twenty times to the same person, Father”). He couldn’t believe that they actually keep track.
A regard for honesty or disdain for lying has not disappeared altogether. Quite the contrary. Pollsters detect rising concern about falling ethics, especially among older cohorts. Surveys in the United States and elsewhere confirm that truthfulness is still one of our most highly valued traits. As the new millennium began, for only the second time in half a century those polled by Gallup put ethics and morality near the top of the list of problems facing Americans. An earlier poll of citizens in ten western European countries found that honesty headed the qualities they most wanted to instill in children. (Confounding stereotypes, Italians were the least tolerant of lying, Belgians the most.) The problem is that a commitment to honesty in principle too often goes hand in glove with routine lying in practice. In biannual surveys conducted by the Josephson Institute of Ethics in Marina Del Rey, California, the vast majority of thousands of middle school, high school, and college students express satisfaction with their ethics and character. Yet nearly three-quarters admit to being “serial liars.” Most say they’d lie to save money, almost half to get a good job. Nearly all of the students are confident they can get away with telling such lies. Granted this is a young, cocksure cohort. But, as institute head Michael Josephson has pointed out, these students cannot have been raised with much ethical rigor. And as they enter the workforce, their problem will become our problem.
Like Josephson’s subjects, when it comes to honesty we’re caught in a chink between our values and our behavior. Most believe that lying is wrong, at least in principle. Few consider themselves unethical. Nonetheless, if research on this subject is credible, nearly all of us tell lies, and far more often than we realize. Once this is called to our attention, it’s hard not to wonder how often others lie to us.
How often do we lie and get lied to? All sorts of figures get bandied about. I’ve seen estimates that range from two hundred times a day to once. One study concluded that we tell thirteen lies a week on the average. Another found that some form of deception occurs in nearly two-thirds of all conversations. If this sounds far-fetched, bear in mind that the most frequent lie of all is “Fine” (in response to the question “How are you?”). This fib is so ubiquitous that deception researcher Bella DePaulo excused subjects from recording it in records they kept of every lie they told in a week’s time. DePaulo’s group consisted not just of seventy-seven University of Virginia students but seventy residents of nearby Charlottesville. During their week of self-scrutiny, the two groups combined recorded 1,535 lies. Charlottesville residents averaged about a lie a day, UVA students two. (This finding may have been skewed by the fact that students lied nearly every other time they talked to their mothers.) One student and six townspeople got through the week lie-free. Among those who didn’t, 70 percent of the entire group said they’d tell the same lies again. Neither group expressed much remorse about their dishonesty.
No one has paid more attention to the issue of contemporary dishonesty than Bella DePaulo.1 Over more than two decades’ time the psychologist has assessed from many different angles how often we lie, to whom, how, and why. The more eager we are to make a good impression, she has found, the more likely we are to tell lies. We’re more prone to lie to those we like than to those we dislike. Attractive people are more likely to trim the truth, more likely to get away with it, and more likely to be lied to. Extrapolating from her studies, DePaulo has concluded that the average American is dishonest at least once a day. During all the years DePaulo has spent investigating this topic, only one of her subjects claimed he always told the truth. She thought he was lying. Occasionally a student of DePaulo’s has tried to go for a week without telling a lie. Few have succeeded. “Lying is a routine event,” DePaulo has concluded. “It has become part of the fabric of our lives, almost a necessity of social and professional life.”
The actual rate of lying or how it’s determined is less revealing than the fact that such observations raise so few eyebrows. To the contrary, they confirm what many suspect already: we live in fibfriendly times. Deceiving others has become something of a leisure activity. We’re of two minds about this: excusing our own lies at the same time that we’re appalled by the prevalence of dishonesty. (Put somewhat differently, my lies are understandable; your lies are contemptible.) At the very least we’re intrigued by this subject. Plots of movies and television shows are routinely based on lying. Newspaper and magazine feature stories regularly cover dishonesty. Lies and liars have become a popular book topic. Some note a looser approach to dishonesty in the postmodern world. As Jeremy Campbell wrote in The Liar’s Tale, “it is a creeping assumption at the start of a new millennium that there are things more important than truth.”
There have always been those who considered honesty overrated. Oscar Wilde defended the aesthetic and moral value of lies. Friedrich Nietzsche thought the well-told lie was a sign of greatness. “A liar in full flower,” wrote Ernest Hemingway, “is as beautiful as cherry trees, or apple trees when they are in blossom.” Nonetheless, in cultures old and new, lies have generally been considered the antithesis of truth, and on balance best not told. Society would collapse if dishonesty became the norm. Most sense that. That’s why concern about lying is rising in conjunction with its prevalence.
Whatever Happened to Honesty?
This book is not meant to be a jeremiad against all lies and every liar. (By “lie” I mean a false statement made knowingly, with intent to deceive; by “liar” I mean one who knowingly conveys false information, intending to deceive.) Rather, it’s an expression of concern about casual lying, its effect on how we deal with each other, and on society as a whole.
As long as human beings have had words to say, they’ve said words that weren’t true. At the same time, most societies have had some variation of Honesty is the best policy as a norm. What concerns me is the loss of a stigma attached to telling lies, and a widespread acceptance of the fact that lies can be told with impunity. Lying has become, essentially, a no-fault transgression. “That’s okay,” we say of those who are caught dissembling. “She meant well.” “Who am I to judge?” And the clincher: “What is truth, anyway?”
Nearly everyone trims and embroiders the truth and hopes for the best. I’ve been known to round down how many miles an hour I was driving, and round up the size of audiences at my lectures. I also get lied to a lot, big lies and small lies, stretchers and whoppers, fun lies and devious ones, petty fibs and felony lies. Who doesn’t? Not that I wring my hands and gnash my teeth when I’m deceived. Like most people, I’ve come to accept dishonesty as commonplace, even routine. Perhaps it would be better if we didn’t.
The obvious cause of dishonesty’s rise is ethical decline. From this perspective, moral compasses have broken down. Our sense of right and wrong has gone into remission. Conscience is considered oldfashioned. Conviction has been replaced by cynicism. Restoring prayer in schools, some argue, would be a giant step toward renewed morality. Or hanging the Ten Commandments on walls of public buildings. Nonsense. There is no evidence that early Americans were more moral than their descendants. It’s doubtful that formerday Americans—the ones who broke treaties with Indians, enslaved Africans, and exploited child labor—had better ethics than current ones. Nor was antebellum religious faith as devout as we like to imagine. Two centuries ago church membership was far lower than it is today, involving less than 10 percent of all Americans.
There never was an ethical nirvana in America or anywhere else, only a time when it was harder to tell lies, and the consequences were greater if one got caught. This book’s premise is that we may be no more prone to making things up than our ancestors were, but we are better able to get away with deceiving others, more likely to be let off the hook if exposed, and in the process convince ourselves that no harm’s been done. As we’ll explore, the mobility and anonymity of contemporary life facilitate dishonesty. So do deceit-friendly intellectual trends, the many celebrity role models of self-invention, and repeated instances of high-profile dissembling that desensitize us to its dangers.
Decades of official lies about Vietnam, Watergate, Irangate, and Iraq (to name just a few such events) have left us morally numb. Early in the new century, a Pew Research Center poll found that three-fourths of those surveyed said they believe people are not as honest as they used to be. Can this be proven? Those who have taken a serious interest in this subject say that would be hard. Nonetheless, they have little doubt that more lies are being told today than were told in our grandparents’ era, or even our parents’:
There is no scientific data, but I think people probably lie more now.
-CHARLES V. FORD, PSYCHIATRIST
There is a general consensus that deception, unethical acts, and cheating increased dramatically over the past several years.
-DAN O’HAIR AND MICHAEL CODY, PSYCHOLOGISTS
Lying in everyday life is more widespread than had previously been assumed.
-RICHARD WISEMAN, PSYCHOLOGIST
It seems to me that lying has reached epidemic proportions in recent years and that we’ve all become immunized to it.
-BEN BRADLEE, FORMER EDITOR OF THE WASHINGTON POST
Although Sissela Bok could not determine that more lies are being told today “per capita,” in the preface to her updated classic Lying Bok did conclude that “we are all on the receiving end of a great many more lies than in the past.” Even if the relative proportion of deceptive messages that we get today is no greater than ever, because we get so many more messages of all kinds—via cell phones, e-mail, instant messaging, the Internet, talk radio, and cable channels—the actual volume of lies we hear is up, way up. Although it would be hard to establish statistically that we tell more lies than ever, my concern is that lies are being told so routinely that we don’t always realize when we’re lying, let alone when we are being lied to.
In the Reagan-Clinton-Bush era we’re so accustomed to being deceived that we forget what a stunner it was in 1960 when Dwight Eisenhower admitted that government officials hadn’t told the truth when they said that a U-2 spy plane shot down by the Soviet Union had been doing weather research. As recently as the early 1970s we could still get outraged about Richard Nixon’s serial deceits. Jimmy Carter was elected in part because he promised never to tell us a lie. By the time of Monica Lewinsky and weapons of mass destruction, the mood had changed. Now our attitude seemed to be: Everyone lies, especially our leaders. What’s the big deal? Dishonesty has come to feel less like the exception and more like the norm. Along with our acceptance of lying as commonplace we’ve developed ingenious ways to let ourselves off ethical hooks.
Even though there have always been liars, lies have usually been told with hesitation, a dash of anxiety, a bit of guilt, a little shame, at least some sheepishness. Now, clever people that we are, we have come up with rationales for tampering with truth so we can dissemble guilt-free. I call it post-truth. We live in a post-truth era.2 Post-truthfulness exists in an ethical twilight zone. It allows us to dissemble without considering ourselves dishonest. When our behavior conflicts with our values, what we’re most likely to do is reconceive our values. Few of us want to think of ourselves as being unethical, let alone admit that to others, so we devise alternative approaches to morality. Think of them as alt.ethics. This term refers to ethical systems in which dissembling is considered okay, not necessarily wrong, therefore not really “dishonest” in the negative sense of the word.
Even if we do tell more lies than ever, no one wants to be considered a liar. That word sounds so harsh, so judgmental. Men in particular are extremely careful to avoid giving other men any opportunity to say “You callin’ me a liar?” Once those fatal words are spoken, it’s hard for dialogue to continue without fists being thrown, or worse. The word lie itself is both a description and a weapon. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this term “is normally a violent expression of moral reprobation, which in polite conversation tends to be avoided.” That’s why we come up with avoidance mechanisms: rationales for dishonesty, reasons why it’s okay to lie, not nearly as bad as we once thought, maybe not so bad after all. The emotional valence of words associated with deception has declined. We no longer tell lies. Instead we “misspeak.” We “exaggerate.” We “exercise poor judgment.” “Mistakes were made,” we say. The term “deceive” gives way to the more playful “spin.” At worst, saying “I wasn’t truthful” sounds better than “I lied.” Nor would we want to accuse others of lying; we say they’re “in denial.” That was sometimes said even of Richard Nixon, the premier liar of modern times, who went to his grave without ever confessing to anything more than errors of judgment. Presidential aspirant Gary Hart admitted only to “thoughtlessness and misjudgment” after reporters revealed Hart’s dishonesty (not only about his sex life but about his age). When, during a primary debate, John Kerry referred to a nonexistent poll that put his popularity well above Hillary Clinton’s, an aide later said Kerry “misspoke.” And it isn’t just male politicians who parse words this way. In the course of writing The Dance of Deception, Harriet Lerner asked women friends what lies they’d recently told. This request was invariably greeted with silence. When Lerner asked the same friends for examples of “pretending,” they had no problem complying. “I pretended to be out when my friends called,” said one without hesitation.
A direct admission of lying (“I lied”) is rare to nonexistent. Those willing to make such a bold statement cast doubt on anything they have said in the past and anything they will say in the future. This is why, rather than open the floodgates and accept lying as a way of life, we manipulate notions of truth. We “massage” truthfulness, we “sweeten it,” we tell “the truth improved.” Britain’s cabinet secretary Sir Robert Armstrong once created an uproar with his droll admission that he’d been “economical with the truth” (a phrase he borrowed from Edmund Burke). Since then, all manner of creative phrasemaking has been devoted to explaining why lies are something else altogether. My favorite depicts a liar as “someone for whom truth is temporarily unavailable.”
When Trump: The Art of the Deal was published, Donald Trump claimed that 200,000 copies had been printed, that The Today Show planned to interview him five times, and that the issue of New York magazine with an excerpt of his book was its biggest seller ever. In fact, 150,000 copies of Trump were printed, Today interviewed him twice, and New York’s sales figures were not available at the time he made his claims. In his book, Trump called this kind of braggadocio “truthful hyperbole.” After The Apprentice became a hit, Trump claimed his television show was the season’s ratings leader (when it was actually #7) and said he was America’s highestpaid television personality. A Fortune reporter who debunked these claims, and many others, concluded that Trump’s boasts about himself were, at best, “loosely truth-based.”
Dishonesty inspires more euphemisms than copulation or defecation. This helps desensitize us to its implications. In the post-truth era we don’t just have truth and lies, but a third category of ambiguous statements that are not exactly the truth but fall short of a lie. Enhanced truth it might be called. Neo-truth. Soft truth. Faux truth. Truth lite. Through such aggressive euphemasia we take the sting out of telling lies. Euphemasia calls up remarkable powers of linguistic creativity. In addition to golden oldies such as “credibility gap,” “reframing,” and Winston Churchill’s “terminological inexactitudes,” consider the following examples of post-truthful euphemisms:
enrich the truth
enhance the truth
embroider the truth
massage the truth
tamper with the truth
tell more than the truth
bend the truth
soften the truth
shade the truth
shave the truth
stretch the truth
stray from the truth
withhold the truth
tell the truth improved
present the truth in a favorable perspective
make things clearer than the truth
be lenient with honesty
Eventually euphemisms themselves develop connotations and spawn progeny. As an executive tells employees in a New Yorker cartoon: “I’m not spinning—I’m contextualizing.”
Honesty was once considered an all-or-nothing proposition. You were either honest or dishonest. In the post-truth era this concept has become more nuanced. We think less about honesty and dishonesty per se and more about degrees of either one. Ethics are judged on a sliding scale. If our intentions are good, and we tell the truth more often than we lie, we consider ourselves on firm moral ground. If we add up truths and lies we’ve told and find more of the former than the latter, we classify ourselves honest. This is ledger-book morality. Conceding that his magazine soft-pedaled criticism of advertisers, one publisher concluded, “I guess you could say we’re 75 percent honest, which isn’t bad.”
In terms of values, this approach denotes a significant shift. Previous generations tended to think you were virtuous or you weren’t. Morality was not assessed by tallying assets and debits on a spreadsheet of virtue and hoping to come out ahead. Another analogy would be that we have shifted from set menu to buffetstyle ethics: picking and choosing which ones to abide. This approach allows for the “compartmentalizing” at which Bill Clinton was said to excel. Abraham Lincoln would not be impressed.
Rising dishonesty has less to do with declining ethics than with a social context that doesn’t place enough emphasis on truthfulness. There has never been a shortage of unscrupulous people. Wherever there are those who think they can get away with lying, there will be liars. The question is: What circumstances foster getting away with telling lies? Apart from sociopaths who make no real distinction between truth and lies, most of us are more honest in certain circumstances, less honest in others. Circumstances that condone dishonesty have risen while those that nurture honesty are in decline. If we do lie more—and I believe we do—it’s because the context of contemporary life doesn’t do enough to penalize dishonesty. At times our culture seems to do just the opposite. Lies pay off, the truth pays a penalty. Whistle-blowers get reprimanded, those on whom whistles are blown get promoted. The army’s chief of staff was rebuked, then hounded out of uniform after his prescient observation that many more troops would be needed to occupy Iraq than to invade that country. A government actuary was threatened with dismissal for suggesting (accurately) that the overall cost of a Medicare prescription-benefit program would be far higher than the figure propagated by the White House. By contrast, known liars such as Monica Lewinsky, Geraldo Rivera, Oliver North, Mike Barnicle, Jayson Blair, and Joe Klein were rewarded with television or radio programs, book contracts, and magazine columns. Being notoriously deceitful can make the deceiver famous, a celebrity even. On our media-driven scale of values, celebrity trumps honesty.
Any Psychology 101 student knows that reinforced behavior is likely to persist. We get the society we pay for. In this case, that means a post-truthful one. Even if more lies are being told than ever, I don’t think there’s any greater human propensity to tell lies. What I do believe is that an age-old willingness to deceive others is being facilitated in new ways. To get a better handle on the prevalence of dishonesty today, let’s first take a brief look at the history of lying.
THE POST-TRUTH ERA. Copyright © 2004 by Ralph Keyes. All rights reserved.