Trust Me, I'm Lying

We reflexively instruct our children to always tell the truth. It's even encoded into Boy Scout Law. It's what adults do, isn't it? But do we? Isn't telling the truth too much and too often a bad life strategy – perhaps even dangerous? Is telling children to always tell the truth even itself the whole truth?

This is a companion discussion topic for the original blog entry at:

I spent decades of my life as a mediocre guitar player because everyone told me I sounded great. Until someone understood that I really wanted to be a good guitar player, and I was ready to work for it. That person told me that I sucked (and explained why and how). There is hardly another person in my life to whom I owe more gratitude. I believe this is a great example of “honesty with a purpose.” All those people who told me I sounded good did the right thing: they had no reason to believe that the truth would have done me any good, and they wouldn’t have been able to give it to me in a way that would have helped me. That one person who did tell me the truth knew that I was ready for it, and that it would be for the best.

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Truth without grace is cruelty. Grace without truth is sentimentality and zero accountability. There has to be a balance between the two. But I think you’re leave it overly ambiguous whether you believe that choosing not to say whatever random thought pops into your head is lying. It is most certainly not. Just because you choose not to say something or to temper the way you say it doesn’t mean you’re lying. In fact, it means that you’re sensitive to the fact that your version of events is more likely to be strongly controlled by emotion and atmosphere rather than reason or logic. The truth transcends how one feels about any given situation, and frankly I think people could use a little more practice at self-restraint and remembering that we were given two ears and only one mouth for a reason.

It is not so hard always tell the truth. The problem here is that the “Radical Honesty” movement says that “if you think it, tell it”.
Look the 3rd alternative: the silence. If you think that girl fat, you don’t need tell her unless that it is requested. As you know that it can be a hard truth, so you can simply to say “I don’t want to express my opinion!” (Look, it’s the truth!).

My peers know that sometimes I decline to express my opinions (positives or negatives), so my negation to express myself will be not received as negative.

The absurd of the movies that you cited are that the persons says their exact thoughts, snd the thoughts are “supposed” to be truths. Let’s say that I say you, “Jeff, you are a nerd!” I’m not telling you the truth, I’m telling you just my opinion! (it can or cannot be truth :wink: )

As you mentioned children, I can say that sometimes I state cleary to my children “I prefer your silence that your lies.” If you force someone to tell something that he will NOT tell, obviously you forced him to tell the lie, got it? I try to let my son as free as possible to tell me ANYTHING, and I try don’t get me shocked or angry. I express my disapproval with serenity, and it works most times.

My last 2 cents, if you really wants “always tell the truth”, just training! We tell lies because we learn that lies are the easy way to solve a lot of problems. My golden tip is: “Try one day at time”.

Fist say “Today I will try “always tell the truth””. So, pay attention over your day, and when in bed, take notes of your lies and think about solutions without lies. It’s fun, you can call your wife and to try get solutions together. It’s a nice exercise and you will feel yourself free of that prison that is the lie.


There’s a pretty devastating take on Radical Honesty at

“speaking the truth in love”

(in this context, the word “love” does not imply sexual desire)

I think there’s a difference between the truth and brutal honesty.

As the old adage goes, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” I think Clickok mentioned the same concept in different words.

“It’s been parodied in any number of screwball Hollywood comedies such as… The Invention of Lying (2009)”

I’m going to call you on that. I don’t think you’ve seen it, because if you had, you wouldn’t be grouping it with “screwball” Hollywood comedies.

You should watch it. It basically makes the same points and reaches the same conclusions as you do.

I think that every time we lie, we are basically putting up a small barrier from them. When it is someone we don’t know or care that much about, it’s not a big deal since it won’t accumulate because you don’t interact with them often. For example, you don’t need to tell every overweight passerby you meet in the mall that they should adopt a healthier lifestyle. But the next time you lie (or omit the truth) to your spouse or a close friend about something, take a moment to see what it costs you. Do you feel some guilt or annoyance? All of that adds over time and creates barriers in your relationship.

That exchange between the wife and husband is a poor example of truth because what the husband responds with is not truth but sarcasm. Perhaps instead of asking about the “payoff” the husband could do one of 2 productive but truthful things:

  1. Figure out why he is so unwilling to listen to her and explain that. “I had a tough day and it’s hard for me to focus on your story”
  2. Explain that he doesn’t see why she is telling him the story and ask her what the importance of the story is.

You might be thinking… what if she just likes telling stories that have no real purpose… Well, if you were truthful to her the first time this happened and told her that you don’t really enjoy listening to stories without points, she probably would have learned not to share unimportant stories, or be more aware of what she is trying to communicate so that the act of sharing can be enjoyed by both sides.

I think this is the real problem with absolute truth: it only works in a world where most people tell themselves and each other the truth all the time. Someone who has bad teeth wouldn’t be offended by you telling them that they have bad teeth if they are honest to themselves about it and their closest friends are honest as well. It’s the same thing with calling someone fat. It’s only bad in a society that judges beauty and character so harshly just based on a person’s weight.

I believe that my spouse and I have a 100% truthful relationship. If I wear something that he doesn’t like, he tells me that he doesn’t like it so that in the future if I’m picking out something that I want to wow him with, I have data to help me. And the best part is that when he says I’m beautiful or I look really fit recently or he’s really impressed with the way I handled something, I know it is 100% true, without compromise. That is a wonderful feeling.

I think lying is also a bit culturally based. I’m Dutch and even here in this small country he have fast differences. People from Braband (Southern state) are way more warm and tend to be more nice and lie for good will. I my self grew up in Noord-Holland where the people are more harsh. I tend to be painfully true. If my wife is gone for a day and returns to me she always asks me: “Did you mis me?”. I always say: “No”, it’s simpel: she has not been gone that long to miss her and why lie? Currently she asks the same thing and says after that: “Lie to me”. And I do because I love her.

Maybe my European cultural background is too different, but I really don’t get why it is better to write “F*ck” than “Fuck”.

Is this kind of cognitive dissonance in terms of “I didn’t write the bad word, you read it!”?

Lying seems to be a subcultural thing. I’ve grown up in the “don’t lie but don’t necessarily tell the whole truth” school, and I don’t have any trouble with that - except that I often wonder whether I should be tell more of the whole truth. And I rarely ever wonder whether someone is telling me the truth (except for salesmen. :slight_smile:

There have been a couple of times in my life when I felt that I just had to lie (which was very painful), but not I suspect I just hadn’t been mature enough. Frankly, I don’t really understand what Jeff is advocating lying for.

@UK: some people’s web access is limited by filters that scan pages for banned words. Thus the need for euphemisms.

If you’re interested, there’s a fun SF book called “The Truth Machine” by James L Hauperin, that deals with the same topic (apparently available for free here):

Scientist invents perfect lie deteector. Changes society. Then the plot thickens a bit…

For me, the interesting part was how business deals were struck in the new world. Buyer said “I can’t pay more than X” and seller said “We can’t sell cheaper than Y”. Note that Y is less than X. Then, they’d negoitiate a middle price.

I recommend it if you’re interested. It’s fairly short and reads quickly.

I would recommend Sam Harris’ book Lying:

It’s short and well written and much in the same spirit (from what I gather) that A.J. Jacobs’ book.

Telling the truth is not the same thing as telling (usually) biased opinions or sharing one’s passing feelings of anger, hate and such with others. Those things are not the truth even though one happens perceive them as true and is utterly convinced of that.

One’s mind has been influenced by (actually: fed by) other people’s opinions and culturally accepted prejudices even since childhood, starting from when one was only learning the language and completely unable to think independently.

That is true for practically everyone on this planet Earth (and those in the orbit, too). So, who can say that they have given that up and changed to what is really true?

Telling the truth seems to be more of an excuse to act out on one’s conditioning and prejudices, without bothering to question them, or - gasp! - to change them.

Of course useful feedback, like the guitar playing case, is completely different. Bad playing, or plainly average playing is not just a matter of taste, as opposed to playing music that you don’t like.

Lying is simple and we do it too often because it is convenient. “Honesty with a purpose” takes much more thought and has big benefits for both sides. I am all for a HonestyWithAPurpose movement.

My husband and I have wrestled with this over the last 15 years. There are several problems with ‘truth’. One is that the truth is often subjective. Secondly, as in the example of the husband and wife talking above, there is a subtext. Answering the question ‘truthfully’ frequently misses the subtext, which is often the important part.

In the case of talking to your spouse, the story your wife is telling may well be boring, even to her. What she wants is your attention. She wants the feeling of being listened to. And the content doesn’t really matter. In this context, silence is not good. Answering the question truthfully is not good. No one will feel good about the exchange because the subtext is still sitting there. A better approach can be to switch to a topic that you are both (truthfully) interested in. As in “Well, I’m not really interested in the details of that. I’m wondering how we’re going to get everything done this weekend.” or “how soon we can take the babies out for Thai food”, or anything else you might both share an interest in.

The other thing about truth is that there is often a time and place for it. I can’t be truthful when my 9 yr old asks me if his piano playing is ‘good’. If I say ‘your timing sucks’, it’s absolutely true, but also cruel and out of place. He needs my support in order to keep practicing. At the moment, I’m trying to be very thoughtful and carefully point out at least one good thing and point out only one spot to focus on improving. This is, um, challenging.

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The saying what’s on your mind thing is a joke. It’s touched on in the article with the thing about fantasizing about your wife’s sister but seriously, a couple of minutes into every conversation with a woman most men would have to say “I’m imagining having sex with you.” I guess if everyone did it all the time then people would get used to it, and maybe in the end it would go without saying. Difficult to see how this is any better though.

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“Ultimately all organisms view all other organisms as a means to their own end.”

As long as an individual thinks the benefit of saying something (truth or lie) outweighs the cost, they will say it. Any attempt to deeply subvert (e.g. always tell truth) this natural inclination to communicate for personal advantage will fail.