The Truth About Lies

Lance Accountability, Communication, Integrity, Leadership Leave a Comment

This past week NPR’s podcast On the Media aired an episode titled “Lies, Lies, Lies,” which it described as follows:

This election season has been rife with misinformation, half-truths, and pure deceit… but lying in politics dates back centuries. This week we devote a whole hour to LIES: the ones our leaders tell us, and the ones we tell ourselves and each other.

(If this were a political or current events blog, I would note with a head-shaking exasperation this amazing editorial choice: an entire hour-long program about lying in politics focused exclusively on one candidate for President while literally avoiding even 10 seconds of discussion on the well-documented record of lying — both recent and distant — built by the other candidate’s move through and march towards History. But, this isn’t a political or current events blog, so I won’t note that.)

One segment in particular caught my ear and has been rolling around in my mind over the last handful of days. Maria Hartwig is a professor of psychology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York, and her specialty is lying. After discussing in broad terms the psychological research on lying and its prevalence — “the studies that we have on lying shows that everybody lies, and people tend to lie at least a couple times a day.” — and distinguishing between real lying and mere political BS “meant to seduce an audience,” the segment ended with this exchange:

HOST: “We’ve established that everyone’s a liar; that nobody wants to be branded a liar; that people yet confess to being a liar, at least when it comes to social lies; and yet another that we demand in politicians a level of truthfulness that we don’t exhibit in our lives; and then still again that we have a tendency to believe what they say even though we also believe that all politicians lie.”

HARTWIG: “You’re right that there are many paradoxes in how we think about lies.”

. . .

HOST: “[Politicians], as a practical matter, have to fib because there’s a penalty often for being caught in a truth.”

HARTWIG: “Yes. They might have come to the conclusion that it would be more damaging to actually be honest.”

HOST: “Which is the final paradox, is it not? That while we claim to demand and expect truth from our candidates, we actually turn out not to like candor any more than we like that brutally honest person in our family or our workplace who just gives you their unvarnished thoughts, come what may.”

HARTWIG: “I think people have a very conflicted relationship with getting the truth, I think they want the truth if it fits with what they want to hear.”

HOST: “What would Jack Nicholson say?”

HARTWIG: “Well, that they can’t handle it, and I think that’s probably right. In many instances, they wouldn’t necessarily want to live in a world where honesty was universal.”

These conclusions, backed up by the expertise of academia and the evidence of science, are misleading even though they are “true,” for two reasons:

They Ignore the Role of Tact

Honesty as a virtue doesn’t mean being an unfiltered opinion machine, spitting out one’s thoughts and impressions as soon as they form. There’s a reason such behavior is termed “brutal honesty” in the context of a polite discussion on public radio. In less measured conversations, people call that being an asshole. One needn’t be “brutal” to be “honest,” and it is no virtue to be someone who always says exactly what he thinks whether asked or not without regard to the interpersonal and social ramifications of doing so. Of course people don’t want to live in a world where brutal honesty is universal, but that is more a statement about desirability of the brutal and less about the honesty.

They Ignore the Role of Trust

The host of this piece put Bill Clinton’s famous lie under oath during a deposition about Monica Lewinski in the same category called “lying” as the universal compliment everyone gives to a young mother on the absolute beauty of her new baby, regardless of what we actually think. As a categorical matter, the host is right: both false statements are indeed “lies.” However, that doesn’t lead to the conclusion that because all people will lie to the young mother about her beautiful new baby, it is somehow paradoxical to expect leaders (political or otherwise) to not lie to us.

The difference lies in the matter of Trust. Trust is everything in any group activity, whether it is a team sport, a corporate organization trying to reach its goals, or a society trying to operate in a safe and productive manner. The “Web of Trust,” to use Bill Whittle‘s term, is the myriad of unseen connections that connect us to each other and to generations past that make nearly all that we do in any given day possible.

Right at this exact instant, there are men and women making sure that you have clean, safe water. That your aspirin is safe, and works as advertised. That you can pick up a can of food in any store in the country and eat whatever is inside it without a second’s worry about its danger. Armies of people, millions of people, get up and go to work every day to make sure that all of the transparent, unnoticed and unsung strands in this Web of Trust function.

Lies that chip away at this connective tissue of Trust are the same as unwarranted compliments only on the issue of sincerity; they are light years’ distant from each other when it comes to the dangers of deception and our need and desire for honesty. To lie every time one is asked if the outfit looks good on your spouse does not mean one is a hypocritical driver of a social paradox when one also voices a demand for transparency and integrity from leaders at all levels. When political leaders routinely are shown to be shameless liars, and nearly 3/4 of companies actively choose to lie to their own employees as a conscious management strategy, people are right to demand better regardless of how sincerely they believe that your new hairstyle really compliments your face. To conflate the two is to give “scientific” sanction to the dishonesty in leaders that risks destroying the web of Trust holding everything together.