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Author Information

Alexander has been contributing for THS for over a year! While he attained a major in communications at SFU, he also recieved a minor in Psychology. Despite those accomplishments, Alex has also never had a full cup of coffee (crazy right?!). Alex is a lifelong sports fan and will defend his Seattle Seahawks to the death, especially if faced against a 49er fan. While Alex's long-term goal is to become a marriage counsellor, he also has a strong passion towards writing that he looks forward to exploring.

Is Honesty Really the Best Policy?

{Image Credit: Getty Images}

“How are you doing Alex?”

“I’m doing great!”

Wait just kidding — I’m only doing okay! I was up late, had a bit to drink and am currently battling the slow-arriving hangover that will settle in over my day. So why did I lie? Did this lie benefit me in any way and what was the context behind my words?

In this instance my benefit was tiny, including but not limited to keeping my ‘cool-guy’ persona who never gets hungover. If my friend James asks, I may say the truth, whereas my Mom? Well maybe she thinks I have the ‘flu’, because lies are sometimes individual specific. For many, myself included, lying may be something that we do without the intent of hurting another person. As a result I am not always thinking about when I do it, and at times I may not view my lying as a negative trait.

Yet it is with that unconscious element in mind, that Dina Kaplan an entrepreneur in New York, made a conscious decision. In an article with The Huffington Post, Kaplan disclosed she would not tell lies for two years. It is unconfirmed on how much of an influence Jim Carrey’s movie Liar, Liar had on this decision but this experiment ranged from eliminating simple lies (like my first example) to more extreme cases. In the process Kaplan’s experiment, while challenging also allowed her to see the strengthening of relationships both with friends and with herself. Inspired by Kaplan’s study, I am going to look deeper at the concept of lying in society. My examination will look at white lies, self-deception and the role of lying in a relationship. In the process I hope to shine a greater importance not only on what lies we tell, but when we choose to tell them.

I did not want to tell everyone around me that I was hungover — was that a big deal? I didn’t hurt anyone with my actions. Lies about minor aspects can be classified as ‘white lies’ and are often described as being trivial, unimportant and are often done to the benefit of the other person. White lies may not seem like there is any negative downfall, especially when a small white lie may help spare the feelings of a friend (“No WAY your butt looks big on those jeans Nicki”).

Kaplan discusses the realization she felt when looking at how often these white lies infiltrated her day, equating certain lies (like mood) to be almost done like a reflex. As a result, Kaplan stated that it needed to be an active choice to ‘stamp out’ this negative habit, comparing it to learning a new language. A small white lie that Kaplan and many others can relate to is the idea of running late—say for a meeting. It is a lot easier to show up and say ‘Damn traffic!’ than ‘Damn..snooze button!’

It wasn’t the traffic’s fault at all, but my friend doesn’t have to know that it was my warm bed that was the deterrent. It’s a small lie that benefits several people while only hurting traffic’s feelings (and trust me, it’ll get over it). But it is important to be aware because as Kaplan points out, these tiny lies could easily form a habit. Are you ALWAYS late? And do you never change your habits because you don’t hold yourself accountable? That is the hang-up with white lies, it may not be the lie itself but the pattern or precedent that is being created that is harmful. Kaplan’s relationships strengthened once this pattern was ceased. This may be shocking simply because sometimes people want the whole truth (and nothing but it!) but are often offended when handed the reality of a situation. Her experiment shines light not only the prevalence of white lies, but also the negative potential connotations and patterns that can arise from it.

When we think about how often we lie to other people, it is easy to sometimes forget the lies that we tell ourselves. Is there a justification in the world big enough to have three cheeseburgers with bacon for breakfast? The answer is probably no, but should I have three hamburgers because I ‘promise’ I’ll work out tomorrow? Heck yes I should.

A small white lie (I’m not working out…c’mon, me!), that contained an act of self-deception in order to allow myself a treat. Is it a big deal? Maybe not, maybe everyone deserves to pig out once in a while. Yet is this self-deception a lie a bigger deal if there is a pattern and I have 3 cheeseburgers every Saturday? It most certainly is, and in that instance self-deception could be significantly harming (in this case it would have health ramifications). The idea of self-deception can also be applied to ambiguous situations and from an outset can seem like a positive. For myself if I am being honest I am not always the most confident about my future and I struggle with that. Instead of looking towards the future in a negative way, I ‘lie’ to myself and talk about how confident I am that things will work out. I state sometimes when I don’t have the answers, that if I feel I am going to be happy at 28, then I’ll have to love myself for my current hardships because it will help mold me in to the person I will be at 28. Thinking about my future in this way, would be no more a ‘lie’ than saying my future would be horrible and it seems from the outset that this act of self-deception couldn’t be a bad thing, right?

Cortney Warren is a licensed clinical psychologist who works with the idea of self-deception and the damage it can cause to your sense of self. Whether we lie about different areas (big or small), ultimately we are lying because “we don’t have enough psychological strength to admit the truth and deal with the consequences that will follow”.

In my own instance, is it a negative to look at my future and say it is going to be super awesome? No, it is great to be optimistic, but do I also some days use that ‘lie’ to become complacent because I am too scared to face the truth? Absolutely I do, and there in lies the crux of my own self-deception as I use my lies to help avoid dealing with the consequences that can come from a self-evaluation. Yet Socrates once stated that “an unexamined life is not worth living” because that is a life that has stopped growing. Thus while it may be easy to engage in self-deception, and on some days it may be beneficial and necessary, it is important to not lose that ability to be able to examine our own lives and our behaviour. As Kaplan’s experiment continued she learned not only so much about her own relationships, but her own sense of self as well. This was possible not only because of the active effort she put into her words, but also the active effort to be honest with herself about what she wanted to achieve with her life. If we lie to ourselves about where we are or what we want, there will only be so much room for true growth.

“Whoa, Kaplan must have been a big liar to see such a change,” you say as you continue reading on. You may even say to yourself that you are a very honest person who wouldn’t alter all that differently one way or the other from such an experiment. But if you say you never lie? Well maybe you too have rocked some self-deception. The study conducted by Kaplan pushed a further light on the role of lying in the everyday citizen in order to get an assessment on how pervasive it can be in society. It was determined that most Americans tell about 1.65 lies a day and that may fall anywhere along this ‘lie’, be it a white lie, self-deception or another form. For many (myself included), lying is not a current flaw that I feel I have in my personality. This could perhaps be indicative as to why lying was described as being like a reflex from Kaplan. If we don’t evaluate that we do it, then we probably are not looking at why you are choosing to lie and what you are choosing to lie about. Another study which focused on alcohol intake was covered in Kaplan’s article and was conducted by the “Centre for addictions recovery”. The study found that 75 percent of Canadians misrepresented or under-represented themselves when asked about how much alcohol they drink. Is this dangerous? Well I thought I drank six beers last night, but I really drank eight (..ish?). In that sense, my misrepresentation was not hurting too many people (outside of my head this morning) but we need to remember the context of the lie. If you are a recovering alcoholic and you think to yourself ‘Ah, I probably only drink twice a week’ but the real numbers say five? It might be time to stop lying to yourself.

Cognitive dissonance is a psychological term that refers to the mental stress someone undergoes when they are holding two conflicting ideas. Instead of saying you drank 5 times a week because you have things to work on, you may instead blame others or your environment for your drinking, reducing your level of dissonance. Similarly you may use an “optimistic bias”, a term that refers to the belief that other people will run the risks of drinking, but surely not yourself! You may use these aspects and it may make you feel better to be blaming outside sources because you no longer have to face your own reality. Yet it comes at the cost of losing the self-evaluation that Kaplan, Socrates and Warren all stress.

When you are able to start taking a look at yourself and your context for lying it may only be natural to progress that thought process into how often we lie to our partners. Honesty is often strived for as a quality for most healthy and happy relationships, but does that mean you are supposed to be 100 percent honest all of the time? Psychologist Pepper Schwartz argues that while honesty in a relationship is great, that we as a society do not need to be as open and honest as we are. If a white lie is meant to be something trivial and to be done for the benefit of the other person, then shouldn’t that in a sense be a benefit to your relationship? I am sure your girlfriend (much to your chagrin) would not be completely devastated if you stated, ‘Heck yeah baby, let’s watch The Notebook not Die Hard!’

Do you really want to watch The Notebook? Perhaps not, but I guarantee your girlfriend is over the moon excited with her boyfriend’s openness to having Gosling, not Bruce Willis, occupying your night. Schwartz ultimately brings up the point that if you are thinking about saying something to your partner, think about if it is something that needs to be said. And if not? Then perhaps a little bit of sacrifice (combined with a smaller white lie) may be the recipe for an enjoyable relationship.

Now Schwartz does not say you should lie about things 100 percent of the time, only that sometimes honesty is not what is desired. What is important, as Kristen Houghton, an editor on relationships, points out is that the lies in a relationship do not become so pervasive that the word trust has little to no meaning anymore. If there starts to become a pattern, similar to with white lies, then there may be an issue. If you are in this relationship and you need to pepper in little white lies to make it work? Maybe the self-examination that was suggested can give you the answers on if this is a relationship worth having.  Your partner owes you a level of trust and security from their relationship, and they deserve to receive the same. It is only once we stop lying to them and ourselves that we can be completely sure of what it is we hope to achieve, both in the relationship and in life.

If honesty really is the best policy, should we not do it all the time? Sometimes in life, lying can solve far more issues than the truth would create and sometimes that can be okay. Lying can be seen as a way to improve relationships, albeit dishonestly, and can be used to make ourselves feel better. Yet as Kaplan pointed out, as much of a benefit as we feel lying may give, we stand to benefit even more by making an active effort to reduce it. As Warren pointed out, it is once we stop doing this that we start to grow and it is with self-evaluation that we may be able to get an honest answer on how often we lie. The theme that runs through all of these researchers is the importance of the context and the gravity behind our lies. Lies that sometimes fall completely under the radar because they are so pervasive it is easy to forget about them may be the most dangerous if the pattern starts to form. Yet if we make an active effort, perhaps not as extreme as Kaplan’s, there can be room for unimaginable growth both with yourself and your relationships. Now that being said, did you enjoy my piece? You can feel free to be honest.

But if there is indeed 1.65 white lies in an average day, I wouldn’t be offended if everybody says they love it.

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4 Comments on “Is Honesty Really the Best Policy?”

  1. dinarebecca August 12, 2017 at 6:55 pm #

    Hi what an interesting piece .. but I wrote that it took two years to learn how not to lie .. and I still try never to. I also don’t recall citing an alcohol study .. did you see that in the piece?

    Definitely agree it’s a fascinating topic .. thanks for writing on it ..

    • The Hudsucker August 14, 2017 at 1:25 am #

      Hi Dina, the article from the Huffington Post that our author cited in this piece included all the information you are inquiring about. That cited information can be found in the article at HuffPo: https://goo.gl/5B2Tdz. Thanks for reaching out and reading.

      • dina kaplan August 14, 2017 at 11:59 am #

        Hi I wrote that piece. It seems he didn’t read it before quoting it though – did you see my note :)?

      • The Hudsucker August 14, 2017 at 2:09 pm #

        Hello Dina, we of course saw your note, thus our reply. We are aware you are the subject of Joanna Adams’ piece over at the Huffington Post, which we only cited (and included the “alcohol study”). However, our writer, Alex did not quote you (nor your Medium article, which we are aware you wrote). Has the Huffington Post article cited you incorrectly? Alex has strictly cited information from Joanna’s Huffington Post article about your decision to not lie for two years. He cited information and research from her article about you in a similar editorialized fashion. Inspired by your study, Alex then dove deeper into the concept of lying in society with his own experiences, research, etc., while using you, like Joanna, as an example.

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