Why we lie
Lance Armstrong speaks to the crowd prior at LiveStrong Sporting Park on June 9, 2011 in Kansas City, Kansas. Photo: Jamie Squire
A long time ago I went out with a guy who cheated at Monopoly. It was a game with a few of his friends, which I didn’t think was meant to be competitive at all. However, I was surprised to discover that this so called boyfriend was happily pilfering money from the treasury when everyone else was filling up glasses of wine and reaching for popcorn. It wasn’t a big deal but I remember feeling pretty confused about what was the whole point of the exercise – it wasn’t as though winning at Monopoly was going to be a big metaphor over who was going to win at life. Though it turned out that his cheating at the game was a metaphor of his cheating on relationships. Neither done particularly well, I may add.
When it was brought to this guy’s attention that slipping himself a few extra $100 bills when no one was looking constituted dishonesty, he protested that it was all just a joke. He was also very quick to distance himself from any label of being “a cheater”.
In his best-selling book The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty author Dan Ariely provides some of the answers about lying and why we keep doing it. In his book, Ariely outlines the unsurprising fact that almost everyone tells lies. After all, who hasn’t told the odd white lie for social convenience? I once honestly answered a friend who had asked if she had gained weight. It resulted in tears and my conscientious effort in the future to always answer such questions in the negative no matter how big the bulge.
Though many of us may tell lies to avoid confrontation, one of the main reasons is undoubtedly to get ahead. Whether in our careers, while doing our taxes or playing sport – the ugly truth is that unethical behaviour is often seen as the way to conquer all. But what Ariely argues is that we are also quick to believe our own lies.
That paints an even more confronting picture – not only are we likely to be dishonest, we like lying to our very selves in the process. A former boss of mine once explained that he had left his wife, who was due to give birth to their second child, for another woman because his wife was simply “not getting him”. I’ve never forgotten his absolute conviction that he was in the right and that he had every reason in the world to leave her. This, despite my subtly pointing out that any woman who was two weeks away from giving birth might not “get” why her husband was having an affair.
Perhaps this analogy has broader application and it all comes down to denial. Surely it’s easier if you believe that you are the good guy. According to Ariely’s research, once we take credit for a task, we are more likely to believe we deserve that credit. It’s also easier to lie when we can distance ourselves away from it. Apparently many people feel more comfortable kicking a golf ball into the hole rather than picking it up and dropping it in – for some reason it feels less like cheating. I’ve also seen people who would never steal, be more than happy to keep the wrong change or fail to pay for a train ticket. It’s far easier to justify your action when you are up against a big organisation rather than dealing face to face with a small business owner.
What’s also scary about this need for justification is that I believe we also lie because we make value judgments on whether a lie is “good” for the receiver. Thereby adding a morally superior smugness to the whole activity. Sometimes this can be based in experience, such as reaction to weight related questions, or rather on the belief that we “know” what our partners, colleagues, parents want to hear – and that may not be the truth.
Another key driver of dishonest behaviour is basic opportunity. It’s always seemed to me that this is why a lot of celebrity film actors are more likely to be caught with their pants down. The long trips spent on location away from spouses surrounded by sycophantic hoards of people are apparently not without their bearing on the probability of infidelity. In a more benign example, if my aforementioned boyfriend hadn’t been the treasurer at Monopoly, would he have been able to cheat?
However, some people may just have a more ‘flexible’ ethical code- often based around what is acceptable within a social group. According to Ariely, people are more likely to lie if others in their group are doing so. Hence, if infidelity won’t be tolerated by your parents or friends, it’s less likely you’ll engage in the practice than if it is. The same applies to the workplace, if a boss tolerates unethical behaviour it’s more likely that people will bend the rules to advance – the Enron scandal may just spring to mind there. It’s why unethical behaviour needs to be addressed from the very top. And why cheating can’t be tolerated, even in Monopoly.