In my role as a scholar who has studied deception for decades, I am often asked why people lie. Sometimes there is a more personal and poignant question behind that question. What others really want to know is how they can get the people they care about to be more honest with them.
I thought about that question a lot when I was writing the chapter, “The many faces of lies,” for a collections of readings called The Social Psychology of Good and Evil. Here’s part of what I said:
“We say that we do not want the most important persons in our lives to lie to us. More to the point, I think, is that we want them to refrain from behaving in ways that would tempt them to lie to us. We want the people we care most about to be people who do not cheat, do not make promises they cannot honor, do not claim more than they deserve, and do not squander our investments or our trust. We want them to be free of the frailties that make all of us human. This is a wish that can never come true.
“We can try to behave in ways that bring out the best in others, so that they will only infrequently be tempted to lie. When they do fall short of our expectations, though, their honesty in admitting as much may depend on the reactions they expect from us. If we characteristically play the role of the wounded victim or the enraged tyrant, they may well be hesitant to own up to the truth. We can thereby protect ourselves from hearing about their bad behavior at the cost of being the target of their lies. The challenge is to be sufficiently understanding of ordinary human failings that others can admit to them, while still maintaining standards of integrity and discernment.”
I was thinking about that as I read an op-ed just posted online at the New York Times. The author, Van Jones, was empathizing with Shirley Sherrod, the woman from the Agriculture Department whose words about race were edited in a misleading way, resulting in her ouster from her job, then a round of apologies as the truth emerged. As Van Jones explained:
“Last year I, too, resigned from an administration job, after I uttered some ill-chosen words about the Republican Party and was accused — falsely — of signing my name to a petition being passed around by 9/11 conspiracy theorists. Partisan Web sites and pundits pounced, and I, too, saw my name go from obscurity to national infamy within hours.”
That’s just the background. The more serious point he was pondering was, what will it take for this to stop? Over time, he suggested, we will do better:
“The worst of the partisans will get their comeuppance and become cautionary tales for others. Public leaders will learn to be more transparent. We will teach our children not to rush to judgment. Technology will evolve to better expose fakers.”
The most important insight Van Jones offered, I think, was this one:
“But the big breakthrough will come not when we are better able to spot the lies. It will come when we are better able to handle the truth about people.”
[Note: For anyone interested in reading more, my brief book, Behind the Door of Deceit, has a section on the ways in which we tempt others to lie to us, often unwittingly. The section is called “How to be a dupe without really trying: Some warnings.” The book is available in paperback (here and here) and on Kindle.]