Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Little White Lies - should we stop telling them?

I just finished reading Sam Harris’ book Lying.  It is one of the “Things that make you go hmmmmm” kinds of reads.  He makes the case that it is almost universally a bad idea to lie, even little white lies.  His claims fall into several categories:

·         Lying decreases interpersonal trust.  When you lie, anyone who knows you lied this time, whether they are involved or not, are going to wonder if you are lying to them later.  This is particularly harmful when it is a child that hears you lie, because they might not understand the concept of a little white lie.  And the person you lied to, if they find out (which they often do), will really trust you less.
·         Lying decreases the opportunity for the person you lied to to make improvements.  If you are honest that someone really isn’t as funny, pretty, good dresser, smart, or whatever, they have a chance to work on it and get better.  But if you falsely convince them that they are already good, them may not.
·         Lies reduce the opportunity for friends to learn about each other.  If you tell someone you don’t like the birthday present they got for you, they may get a better one next time because they learn more about you.  Same thing if you are honest that you don’t like chicken, don’t want to see that movie, or whatever.
·         Being brutally honest can bring friends closer because it can increase explicit trust.  Since it is so rare, the person might start looked to you for the one sure thing for an honest opinion or advice.
·         There is a slippery slope to the “Big Lie.”  The more you lie, the more likely you are to lie in the future.  This actually has research behind it.  When you lie, you have to replenish your ego to keep from feeling guilty.  So we rationalize it.  This rationalization process spreads a little bit mentally – we tell ourselves perhaps a little too  strongly that the lie was for the best.
·         Lying decreases societal trust.  How many of us have lost trust in important institutions like politicians, financial advisors, corporations, medical professionals in many cases, lawyers, priests. . .
·         Telling the truth when it would have been easier to lie feels good.  It can lead to spiritual growth.  And if you surprise the person you are honest to, you may uplift them as well.
·         It takes mental workload to remember your lies.  The more you lie, the more you have to remember.  The complex web of lies adds up.  Keeping your brain active in this way decreases your ability to perform other cognitive tasks, decreases your willpower, your ability to think long term, and increases the risk of chronic stress.

But he does identify three conditions where it is OK to lie:
·         When there is a clear subtext that you would be telling the truth to by lying.  So for example when your aging spouse asks if she still looks beautiful and she is really asking if you still love her.  “Yes” is the correct answer here.
·         In contexts where lying is part of the game.  When playing poker for example, you can bluff. 
·         In self-defense, such as telling a lie to a mugger to save yourself from assault.

This was interesting to me because I really bought into most of it and I think I will try to follow his lead.  I am not a big fraud in general, but his ideas about not telling little white lies is something I would like to try, at least some of the time. 

But where I will continue to disagree is the kinds of little white lies that are discussed in the Talmud.  If memory serves from my high school Talmud class, there is a passage that says “Every bride is beautiful.”  The meaning is that if a bride asks you if she looks beautiful, you should assume that she does to the groom and that is all that matters.  So if you don’t think so, it is irrelevant.  The correct answer here is that the bride is beautiful.  The debate in the Talmud expands the context a little by thinking about what is in the best interest of the person asking.  If there is nothing they can do about it or if lying might give them a little self-confidence (such as before going into a job interview) then again the correct answer is the positive one, not the brutally honest one.  But if the brutal honest answer will allow them to self-improve, then that is the correct answer, even if it makes you feel bad to say it.