We were all raised to understand the difference between what’s right versus what’s wrong in very clear black and white terms. From the 10 Commandments in the Bible to the famous fable of George Washington cutting down the cherry tree, it’s undeniable that lying falls unanimously under the category of things good and honorable people just don’t do.
We think of liars—bankers, politicians, cheating spouses—as quintessential “bad people,” who are separate from us because of their blatant ability to lie and cheat for their own personal gain.
However, the reality of the situation is this: Everyone is capable of lying—and for the most part, everyone does it.
Rachel Sussman, LCSW, a licensed therapist and relationship specialist, considers how people tend to view their lies as being the best and/or only option for the betterment of their interpersonal relationships.
She says, “many people lie and consider it ‘bending the truth’… so they don’t think it’s so bad. Sometimes people lie and they actually think they are helping someone or defusing a bad situation, or they are conflict avoidant.”
Sussman provides an important insight into why so many of us lie and still manage to think of ourselves as “good people.” We just find excuses that we deem acceptable loopholes to the idea that all lying is bad.
Professor Dan Ariely has been studying behavioral economics for decades. His book, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty hones in on the different irrational loopholes we come up with to justify our lying and cheating.
According to Professor Ariely, there are three basic considerations everyone preemptively considers before lying or cheating: “(1) the benefit that one stands to gain from the crime; (2) the probability of getting caught; and (3) the expected punishment if one is caught.”
Basically, if the pros outweigh the cons, and we recognize that we will benefit significantly from being deceptive, we justify lying as being a “rational” course of action. The higher the payoff we earn from lying, the more we disassociate ourselves from being considered a bad person—even though it contradicts our basic understanding that lying itself is bad.
“People should lie less frequently. It’s a bad, bad habit,” says Sussman.
But is lying just a bad habit?
Professor Robert Kurzban investigates what he calls “behavior inconsistencies” in his book, Why Everyone (Else) Is A Hypocrite.
What Professor Kurzban argues is that humanity lies—not as a result of developing bad habits—but because the human mind cannot function seamlessly, which is why we sometimes have “contradictory beliefs.”
Which is to say, we can get mad at our friends for lying to us, but feel morally sound lying to them.
This means that deception is beyond being just a bad habit—it’s a psychological conundrum.
But all of this research doesn’t exclusively prove that everyone is inherently evil because of their capacity to deceive. There is still a difference between good and bad people—and in this case, it would be what pushes some to strive towards a greater sense of honesty.
Morality plays a major role in resisting temptation.
Professor Ariely notes that, “while ethics lectures and training seem to have little to no effect on people, reminders of morality—right at the point where people are making a decision—appear to have an outsize effect on behavior.”
And it’s this morality that divides the doping athletes from the average joe who once took $20 out of his roommate’s wallet.
Examples of what does lower your desire to deceive (that is, if you have an average moral compass)? Supervision, signature placements, and honor pledges.
Morality reminders aren’t going to stop people with a mentality like Bernie Madoff, but they do have a significant influence on smaller executions of deception, like someone who’s considering cheating on an exam.
As Professor Ariely puts it: “We like to believe that a few bad apples spoil the virtuous bunch. But research shows that everyone cheats a little—right up to the point where they lose their sense of integrity.”
We all lie—it’s a contagious part of humanity—but the extent to which we lie and cheat and deceive is really what divides the good from bad.