Why We Lie

20628In Why We Lie: The Evolutionary Roots of Deception and the Unconscious Mind, David Livingstone Smith explains that homo sapiens are continually engaged in lies and deceptions, as well as self-deceptions. We deceive others and ourselves all the time, because it’s advantageous to do so as a species. “As humans, we must fit into a close-knit social system to succeed, yet our primary aim is to look out for ourselves above all others. Lying helps.”

Psychologist Robert Feldman, from the University of Massachusetts, conducted a sobering study which found that 60% of people tell on average 3 lies for every ten minutes of conversation. The frequency applies to men and women equally, though the sexes tend to lie about different things: men to make themselves look better, women to make others feel good.

This has in view all types of lies: socially acceptable lies (normally not considered lies), unacceptable lies (blatant or bald-faced lies), lies of omission (silent lies), and many other forms of deception. The field of evolutionary psychology is broadly inclusive on the subject, and it’s only beginning to come to terms with the phenomenon of self-deception.

Self-deception is seriously underrated — rather understandable, since none of us wants to admit we deceive ourselves (which is part of the self-deceiving process). But lying to ourselves is essential, says Smith, because it soothes the stresses of life, and in the process helps us lie efficiently to others. The unconscious region of the brain, where truth can be effectively obscured, makes this possible.

“Lying to ourselves promotes psychological well-being,” states Smith in an online interview. Research shows that depressed people deceive themselves less than those who are mentally healthy. They have a better grasp on reality than most people, and in his book Smith cites the philosopher David Nyberg who remarks that “self-knowledge isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be” (The Varnished Truth, p 85). It would seem that the religion of gnosticism starts from a horribly wrong premise.

In the interview, Smith continues at some length about self-deception:

“Self-deception relieves us from a sense that we’re constantly living in contradiction. We each have a set of values that we constantly violate. When you’re aware of transgressing one of those values that you hold dear, you tend to feel bad about yourself. In deceiving ourselves, we relieve ourselves of that burden, making life a lot easier and lot more pleasant for ourselves. It’s quite wonderful… If we convince ourselves we’re not really lying, we can lie far more effectively than might otherwise be the case. All of our social lies, like the fake smile, involve the manipulation of how others see us. Our lives are saturated with pretense and dishonesty. Although we claim to value truth above all else, we are also at least dimly aware that there is something antisocial about too much honesty.”

But the trick lies in balancing lying and honesty in appropriate measures. Deception and self-deception are obviously not always advantageous. Furthermore, it’s necessary to be economical with lies, otherwise lying/deception would become self-defeating (the “boy who cried wolf” syndrome, notes Smith). “Unless self-deception is limited to the right dosage, the disadvantages of information deprivation would outweigh the benefits of social manipulation and nature would select it out of existence.” (Why We Lie, p 78)

None of this addresses the morality of lying and deception, only their naturality. The point is that lying and deception are perfectly normal, and necessary for the sake of mental health.

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