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This Life Lesson Ain’t No Lie

by Janine Boylan on February 25, 2013

woman with long nose, illustrating a life lesson about telling lies

Lies tend to catch up with you.
© Thinkstock

Have You Lied Today?

I did, even though one life lesson I’ve surely learned is: Don’t lie. 

I was at this restaurant where the service was impossibly slow and the food mediocre. I had to go into the kitchen to summon the server and request my check. When she sauntered out and gave me the bill, she asked: How was everything? My answer: Fine.

No, it wasn’t! But it was easier to tell a little lie than to have a confrontation.

According to a 2010 research study (Serota, Levine, Boster), on average, adults lie 11 times a week. Consider the US adult population of about 240 million x 11 lies a week x 52 weeks a year. You can see where the math is headed—we had 137 billion lies floating around in 2012! That’s 261,187 lies per minute.

No surprise. Lies have been with us since ancient times:

  • If Homer’s version of the Trojan War (circa 1184 BCE) is true,  the Greeks told a whopper when they placed the big wooden horse at the gates of Troy and said it was a gift.
  • In ancient Rome at Ephesus, a grand library was built in 117 CE with an underground tunnel that led to a brothel. That way Romans could say they were going to the library when they had other plans.
Toy blocks spelling "lie" to highlight a life lesson about telling lies

Lies block healthy relationships
© Thinkstock

And so it goes up to modern times when

  • Runner Rosie Ruiz slipped out of the pack of runners in the 1980 Boston marathon, took the subway to a mile from the finish line, and then ran the last leg of the race to be the first across the finish line.
  • Popular 1990’s Grammy-winning pop band Milli Vanilli didn’t sing even a note on their albums.
  • Presidential candidate John Edwards denied an extramarital affair and fathering a child out of wedlock.
  • Investor Bernard Madoff scammed billions from investors in an enormous Ponzi scheme over more than ten years.

Lies come in all sizes. Some affect the course of history and some cause relationships to run their course.

Why Do People Lie?

It’s actually a lot of work to lie. You have to create a believable story, deliver it convincingly, and then remember all the details so you’ll never get caught. All that makes you anxious!

Once you start with a lie, it’s hard to stop. Likely, you’ll be caught, and then facing the consequences of your lie can be horrible. In some cases, it can ruin everything you’ve worked hard for. Just ask Lance Armstrong. Or Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. Or Marion Jones.

So, why do people lie?

  • To save face: Sorry I didn’t respond—I never got your text.
  • To look better: I was on the first string in high school. 
  • To be nice: Your chicken stew is delicious.
  • To deflect or avoid blame: My husband made me late. Or: That green vase? No, I never touched it.
  • To avoid conflict: It wasn’t my decision, but I have to let you go.

See more everyday examples in Justin Barber’s clever “Truth and Lies” poster series.

Everyday lies can turn into a habit.  Habits can lead to careers built on lies:  No, I have never taken any banned substances.

disgraced biker, showing a life lesson about lies

Telling lies is stressful.
© Thinkstock

There’s a Good Reason Not to Lie

The Science of Honesty study, directed by Anita E. Kelly and and Lijuan Wang at Notre Dame, investigated links between lying and health.

Across ten weeks, one group in the study was directed to stop telling lies (both big and little), while the control group received no special instructions. Both groups answered questions weekly about their health and relationships and took polygraph tests about the number of lies they had told that week.

The results? The people in the study had an important Oh, I see moment. Both their health and relationships improved as they told fewer lies.

How Can You Change Your Ways?

According to experts, it may be easier than you think. Once you accept that everyone makes mistakes, you can make a short apology rather than a lot of excuses. It’s also easier to stand up and take responsibility for something that went wrong. And, as the participants in the Science in Honesty study advise, you can just decide to tell the truth about your accomplishments rather than exaggerating them.

Being truthful doesn’t mean that you have to be unkind either. Maybe you don’t so much like the fit and radiant green of your friend’s new pants, but you can zero in on something positive:  Hey, you’ll stand out in a crowd!

Oh, I see. I can find ways to be more truthful. Next time I’m in a mediocre, sluggishly-paced restaurant and the server says How was everything?, I can answer honestly: Well, this will certainly be something to write about! 

The Science for Honesty study, running from 2011-2013, is sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation

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