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Jun. 9 2010 - 1:35 pm | 2,457 views | 0 recommendations | 7 comments

Everybody Lies. Why?

Between Floyd Landis’s recent confession that he lied for years about doping in cycling, to the accusations against Rod Blagojevich for lying about how he handled the replacement of Barack Obama’s Senate seat, to the endless parade of lies told by celebrities, religious leaders, corporate CEOs, and especially politicians, it might seem reasonable to ask: does everyone lie?

According to one of the most popular lines on one of television’s most popular series, House, the answer is “Everybody lies.” Dr. Gregory House, the show’s curmudgeonly brilliant diagnostician played by Hugh Laurie, assumes that most of his patients most of the time will lie to him and everyone else about how they got whatever peculiar disease or infliction that mystifies House and his team until they solve it 51 minutes into the hour. Let’s call this House’s Axiom: Everybody Lies.

Corollaries to House’s Axiom include:

“I don’t ask why patients lie, I just assume they all do.”

“It’s a basic truth of the human condition that everybody lies. The only variable is about what.”

“Truth begins in lies.”

“The most successful marriages are based on lies.”

“I’ve found that when you want to know the truth about someone that someone is probably the last person you should ask.”

“You want to know how two chemicals interact, do you ask them? No, they’re going to lie through their lying little chemical teeth. Throw them in a beaker and apply heat.”

Why does everybody lie? There are countless proximate (immediate) reasons:

Politeness: “Oh, I like your haircut”.

Empathy: you don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings.

Embellishment: résumé, job application, college entrance essay, Facebook profile.

Embarrassment avoidance: “I don’t know how that dent in my car happened.”

Conflict avoidance: a little white lie now will avoid a larger conflict produced by the truth, as in “I was late because of traffic” instead of “I was late because I left late because what I was doing was more important than you.

Agreement to lie: as in the Omerta Rule of silence (discussed in prior post) where we all agree to lie if caught violating the rules.

And many others…

The deeper ultimate cause of lying has to do with our evolutionary past and the fact that we are a hierarchical social primate species that practices sexual (instead of asexual) reproduction, and seeks status in the hierarchy (we’re not truly egalitarian). If we reproduced with ourselves then there would be 100% certainty that our offspring was ours and there would be no need to deceive or worry about being deceived. Since the process of evolution is driven forward by the variation (and subsequent natural selection) produced by the genetic mixing up of genomes through sex, sexual reproduction is the predominant means of getting one’s genes into the next generation, and as such there is a less than 100% certainty that one’s genes are being forwarded through one’s partner, and this leads to an inevitable amount of deception between the sexes in any romantic relationship, either trying to get away with extra-partner relationships (lying about trysts), or trying to prevent the same (mate guarding). Trust may be broken once, maybe twice, but after that, very few relationships can survive.

Status is the other force behind deception, as hierarchical status infers all sorts of reproductive and survival advantages that lead us to embellish, exaggerate, and otherwise flat out lie about who we are, what we are capable of doing, what we have accomplished, and the like. The tension is always between establishing status as a truth-telling honorable person of integrity and a competent skilled intelligent able-bodied person deserving of recognition and reward. Ideally you can be and have both, but that is not always (or even usually) the case, and thus it is that we embellish, exaggerate, etc.


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  1. collapse expand

    I guess all the liars don’t want to post a comment! I omit the truth by not correcting misperceptions, but is that a lie? Or, is it just a polite method of telling someone I don’t want them minding my business?

  2. collapse expand

    Laurence Mordechai Thomas discusses concepts around bad behavior in Vessels of Evil: American Slavery and the Holocaust. The concept of “moral drift” is what can take someone far away from that complimentary little lie to the Blago type deeds. Some people can hold their ground and others slide down the morality scale with pathological ease, for which the only possible cure – and it ain’t 100% – is coming clean.

  3. collapse expand

    Mr. Shermer,

    You asked:”Everybody Lies. Why?”

    I would answer:”Because it works (or at least can work)”.

  4. collapse expand

    If you defend, believe and promote something that is not true, are you a liar? For instance, if there is no God and you spend your life believing and selling a version of God for financial gain, are you a liar? Were Bush, the Democrats and the rest of the world who believed and supported the conclusion of WMD in Iraq liars, or mistaken? It seems to me a liar would be a preacher that secretly did not accept God, and politicians would be liars if they supported stands that they new for sure to be absolutely false. I would be interested in comments……

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    About Me

    Dr. Shermer is the Founding Publisher of Skeptic magazine and editor of Skeptic.com, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and an Adjunct Professor at Claremont Graduate University. His latest book is The Mind of the Market, on evolutionary economics. His last book was Why Darwin Matters: Evolution and the Case Against Intelligent Design, and he is also the author of The Science of Good and Evil and of Why People Believe Weird Things. He received his B.A. in psychology from Pepperdine University, M.A. in experimental psychology from California State University, Fullerton, and his Ph.D. in the history of science from Claremont Graduate University (1991). He was a college professor for 20 years, and since his creation of Skeptic magazine he has appeared on such shows as The Colbert Report, 20/20, Dateline, Charlie Rose, and Larry King Live (but, proudly, never Jerry Springer!).

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