Almost Everyone Lies, Often Seeing It as a Kindness

Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 19, 2007

The perjury trial of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby goes to the jury this week. The case speaks to several issues -- how the Bush administration deals with critics of the war in Iraq, and the games that Washington's reporters and politicians play with each other. As far as the jury is concerned, however, the case is about only one thing: lying.

One particularly well-qualified witness on this subject was not called by either the prosecution or the defense, so today we cross-examine Robert Feldman ourselves. Feldman is a social psychologist at the University of Massachusetts who studies lying in everyday life, and his findings are just the kind of thing that Libby's lawyers could have pounced on.

Feldman's experiments show that stern-faced judicial proceedings about perjury are as remote from the realities of human behavior as President Bush is from the Nobel Peace Prize. For one thing, lying plays a more complex role in human relationships than the black-and-white legal view recognizes. It is also so commonplace in everyday life that putting people on trial for lying is somewhat like putting them on trial for breathing.

Experiments have found that ordinary people tell about two lies every 10 minutes, with some people getting in as many as a dozen falsehoods in that period. More interestingly -- and Libby might see this as the silver lining if he is found guilty -- Feldman also found that liars tend to be more popular than honest people. (Ever notice how popular politicians somehow change their minds on controversial issues such as the war in Iraq at the exact moment that public opinion on those issues changes?)

"It is not that lying makes you popular, but knowing when to say something and not be completely blunt is in fact a social skill," Feldman said. "We don't want to hear hurtful things, so a person who is totally honest may not be as popular as someone who lies. This is not to say lying is a good thing, but it is the way the social world operates."

Lying turns out to be one of those issues on which Americans simultaneously hold contrary points of view. On the one hand, the nation admires such icons as George "Cannot Tell a Lie" Washington and Abraham "Honest Abe" Lincoln. But Americans are an extremely sociable and gregarious people, and if the psychological experiments are accurate, being socially skillful almost always involves the ability and willingness to deceive.

"Parents venerate Washington and Lincoln but also tell their children there are instances you should not be honest: 'Tell your grandmother you like the gift even though you really don't,' " Feldman said. "Kids learn two messages: 'Always tell the truth,' and the other is, 'Not really.' "

Now most of the lies that Feldman is talking about do not involve national security and stakes as high as war. They are mostly designed to please others -- "It doesn't look like a toupee at all," "The muffins were great," "What an adorable baby!" -- and as harmless bouts of self-promotion, as in, "Yeah, I used play lead guitar for the Police," and, "Nelson Mandela was telling me the other day . . . ."

But before you get all high and mighty about how your lies never got anyone killed, consider this. A lot of research shows that serious lies are almost always told with the best of intentions. Think of it this way: Everyone would agree that telling a Nazi knocking at your door that you are not harboring Jews is a lie worth telling -- a heroic, necessary lie. What is harder to understand is that many people who lie for what we feel are contemptible reasons see themselves in the same heroic light.

"Look at the Libby trial," said Leonard Saxe, a social psychologist at Brandeis University. "Even if he knew when he testified that he was being deceptive, I am sure he believes he was doing it for the best of reasons and this was his way of being a patriot."

Saxe found in one experiment that nearly 85 percent of college students had lied in the course of a romantic relationship, most often about another relationship. (These were lies that people voluntarily admitted to Saxe, which means the actual number of lies and liars was probably higher.) Nearly to a person, the liars said they were trying to protect the feelings of someone they cared about.

Our reaction to such protestations is to roll our eyes, but life provides us with endless situations in which honesty is not the only virtue in play. Nor is it clear that most of us can really stand endless doses of honesty -- especially when the truth might hurt.

"We want everyone to be honest, but it is not clear what to do when honesty bumps up against other values -- caring about another person, their feelings," said Bella DePaulo, a social psychologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara. "People say they want to hear the truth, but that is in the abstract. Would you tell someone, 'Tell me all the things about me you don't like, all the things that annoy you'?"

DePaulo once conducted a study in which she asked people to recall the worst lie they had ever told and the worst lie ever told to them. In a reflection of how much our perceptions of lying depend on our particular points of view, the psychologist found that many young people reported that the worst lie ever told to them was by a parent who concealed news that someone they loved was sick or dying. By contrast, DePaulo found, parents never thought of such deceptions as particularly serious ethical breaches -- in fact, they saw them as acts of love.

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