Happiness in this World

Reflections of a Buddhist physician

Why We Lie

The reasons we lie are what make it right or wrong

Several months ago, my wife and I began toilet training our son, Cruise (the Montessori method is to train toddlers to use the toilet as early as possible). We'd diligently put him on a small potty in his bathroom as often as we could drag ourselves into doing it and repeat over and over to him, "Pee pee on the potty, Cruise. Pee pee on the potty." In order to get him to remain sitting on it so that he might actually pee into it, we'd read books to him, which he loves more than almost anything.

Like many toddlers, when his bedtime arrives, he often prefers to stay up playing with his parents. One night as we were laying him down in his crib, he surprised us by grabbing his diaper with his hand and exclaiming, "Pee pee on potty. Pee pee on potty" in a plaintive, expectant voice. But we knew he didn't need to pee as we'd just taken a freshly wet diaper off him.

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We realized abruptly that he was intentionally lying to us in order to avoid going to sleep. Other than being dumbfounded that the idea to lie in order to get what he wanted would occur to him at only 20 months of age, it got me thinking about how lying seems almost hard-wired into us and about all the reasons we do it.

WHAT QUALIFIES AS A LIE?

Lying by omission (by simply not admitting something) may seem less heinous than speaking an untruth directly, but the intent to deceive is the same. As well, people are complex and rarely have only one reason for doing anything. So we may tell a co-worker who's asked us out on a date we can't go out with him (or her) because of a company policy that expressly forbids it—which technically may be true—but which nevertheless enables us to avoid confessing the true reason for our refusal, that we don't find him (or her) attractive. This still represents an attempt to deceive so though we may content ourselves that we at least told a partial truth, we can't claim to have been entirely honest either.

LYING IS ABOUT IMMEDIATE REWARD

In general, we lie to obtain protection. We protect:

  1. Ourselves, lying often to avoid suffering painful consequences, shame, embarrassment, or conflict.
  2. Our interests. Probably the second most common reason we lie is to get what we want. We lie to get material goods (like money) and non-material goods (like attention from the telling of tall tales).
  3. Our image. We all want others to think well of us, yet we all do things we ourselves consider less than respectable at times. Rather than admit it, however, and suffer a diminution of others' respect, we often cover it up. Or, having failed to act courageously and virtuously, we lie to appear more courageous and virtuous than we are.
  4. Our resources. We often lie to avoid expending energy or time doing something we really don't want to do (going out with a friend we find boring, attending a party we know we won't enjoy, working on a project about which we're not really enthused) but don't feel comfortable admitting.
  5. Others. When asked if we like a haircut, shoes, writing, or a performance, we often lie to protect our friends' and family's feelings. In their book Nurtureshock Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman present evidence that children lie to their parents far more often than parents realize because they think telling their parents what they want to hear will make them happier than telling them they failed to live up to their parents' expectations in some way. According to the research, forcefully confronting any suspected lying only makes children work harder at lying better.

WHY WE SHOULDN'T LIE

The idea of not lying is strangely controversial. Most people seem to feel lying in some circumstances is not only acceptable but desirable. And, in fact, I agree. If you have to lie, for example, to save someone's life, or if lying turns out to be ultimately more compassionate than telling the truth (the removal of suffering and imparting of joy the appropriate ultimate end of all behavior), lying is probably the correct course of action to take.

But most of the time most of us don't lie out of the spirit of compassion. And even when we do, we usually make the assumption that people are essentially fragile and have egos that will likely collapse, or at the very least be injured, if they hear unpleasant feedback.

But there's a wonderful, if subtle, benefit to aiming for honesty in as many circumstances as we can: it motivates us to strive to become all the good things lying helps us pretend we already are. Every time we come up against one of the above-mentioned reasons for lying, it unmasks a character defect we then have the opportunity to change. To live with the intent to avoid doing anything we'd ever feel the need to cover up leads to a remarkably stress-reduced life.

Imagine developing a reputation for brutal honesty upon which others know they can always rely. What an invaluable resource you'd become! People who say they want to hear the truth but are in reality more interested in being praised will quickly learn either not to ask you for your views or that the value of hearing the truth, no matter how painful, is greater than keeping their egos protected because it affords them the opportunity to reflect and self-improve. Others often have a far more accurate perspective on our character flaws than we do. If we're genuinely interested in improving ourselves or our work, what we need from them is the truth, not flattery, even in matters that appear at first glance trifling.

REDUCING OUR TENDENCY TO LIE

I used to promulgate an image of myself as a rigorously and consistently honest person—as someone always driven to reveal the core truth of any matter—but that image was itself for a long time a lie. Over the years, though, as I've challenged my character flaws motivated out of a desire to better myself without any regard to becoming more honest specifically, I've found myself gradually and naturally lying less and less as the clearing out of my negativity has left me with fewer and fewer motivations to do so. Not that I have a perfect record by any means. But the number of lies I've told over the last few years has dwindled so low that I can actually remember each one. I can't tell you how much more I like myself because of it, how proud of myself I am when I feel the temptation to lie and resist it.

When our son Cruise told his little lie, my wife and I looked at each other in amazement.

"He's lying," I told her.

"I know," she said.

We almost laughed to think that as soon as the human animal figures out it has desires it almost as quickly discovers lying as an effective way to fulfill them.

We both recognized in that moment that truth telling will be a skill we'll need to help our son practice—which we started that night by smiling down at him gently, patting his little tummy, telling him we loved him as we do every night, and then quietly slipping out of his bedroom and closing the door.

 

If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to explore Dr. Lickerman's home page, Happiness in this World.

Alex Lickerman, M.D., is a general internist and former Director of Primary Care at the University of Chicago and has been a practicing Buddhist since 1989.

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