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The High Price Of Telling Lies

This article is more than 9 years old.
Neuroscientist Sam Harris says lying — no matter how large or small the lie — is damaging. (double: zanzo/Flickr)
Neuroscientist Sam Harris says lying — no matter how large or small the lie — is damaging. (double: zanzo/Flickr)

Neuroscientist and best-selling writer Sam Harris says lies of any color are damaging. It's the subject of his latest book, "Lying."

According to Harris, lies damage relationships with other people.

"When you're lying, you're constantly playing this game where you're having to keep track of what you said, and it's the antithesis of integrity and openness and authenticity,"  Harris told Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson. "When you're pretending to be someone you're not, you're paying a price, even if it's not obvious to you."

But not only does lying damage relationships with others, it discourages self-improvement.

"When you give yourself the out of lying,  you deny yourself the kinds of collisions with reality that are necessary to improve your life," Harris said. "A commitment to honesty is a kind of mirror that you hold up to yourself, where you can discover who you are in relationship to others, and in relationship to your moment-to-moment experience."

Book Excerpt: "Lying"

by Sam Harris

Among the many paradoxes of human life, this is perhaps the most peculiar and consequential: We often behave in ways that are guaranteed to make us unhappy. Many of us spend our lives marching with open eyes toward remorse, regret, guilt, and disappointment. And nowhere do our injuries seem more casually self-inflicted, or the suffering we create more disproportionate to the needs of the moment, than in the lies we tell to other human beings. Lying is the royal road to chaos.1227_lying-bookcover

As an undergraduate at Stanford, I took a seminar that profoundly changed my life. It was called “The Ethical Analyst,” and it was conducted in the form of a Socratic dialogue by an extraordinarily gifted professor, Ronald A. Howard. Our discussion focused on a single question of practical ethics: Is it wrong to lie? At first glance, this may seem a scant foundation for an entire college course. After all, most people already believe that lying is generally wrong—and they also know that some situations seem to warrant it. What was so fascinating about this seminar, however, was how difficult it was to find examples of virtuous lies that could withstand Professor Howard’s scrutiny. Whatever the circumstances, even in cases where most good people would lie without a qualm, Howard nearly always found truths worth telling.

I do not remember what I thought about lying beforeI took “The Ethical Analyst,” but the course accomplished as close to a firmware upgrade of my brain as I have ever experienced. I came away convinced that lying, even about the smallest matters, needlessly damages personal relationships and public trust.

It would be hard to exaggerate what a relief it was to realize this. It’s not that I had been in the habit of lying before taking Howard’s course—but I now knew that endless forms of suffering and embarrassment could be easily avoided by simply telling the truth. And, as though for the first time, I saw all around me the consequences of others’ failure to live by this principle.

That experience remains one of the clearest examples in my life of the power of philosophical reflection. “The Ethical Analyst” affected me in ways that college courses seldom do: It made me a better person.

What Is a Lie?

Sam Harris
Sam Harris

Deception can take many forms, but not all acts of deception are lies. Even the most ethical among us regularly struggle to keep appearances and reality apart. By wearing cosmetics, a woman seeks to seem younger or more beautiful than she otherwise would. But honesty does not require that she issue continual disclaimers—“I see that you are looking at my face: Please be aware that I do not look this good first thing in the morning ...” A person in a hurry might pretend not to notice an acquaintance passing by on the street. A polite host might not acknowledge that one of her guests has said something so stupid as to slow the rotation of the earth. When asked “How are you?” most of us reflexively say that we are well, understanding the question to be merely a greeting, rather than an invitation to discuss our career disappointments, our marital troubles, or the condition of our bowels. Elisions of this kind can be forms of deception, but they are not quite lies. We may skirt the truth at such moments, but we do not deliberately manufacture falsehood or conceal important facts to the detriment of others.

The boundary between lying and deception is often vague. It is even possible to deceive with the truth. I could, for instance, stand on the sidewalk in front of the White House and call the headquarters of Facebook on my cell phone: “Hello, this is Sam Harris. I’m calling
from the White House, and I’d like to speak to Mark Zuckerberg.” My words would, in a narrow sense, be true—but the statement seems calculated to deceive. Would I be lying? Close enough.

To lie is to intentionally mislead others when they expect honest communication. This leaves stage magicians, poker players, and other harmless dissemblers off the hook, while illuminating a psychological and social landscape whose general shape is very easy to recognize. People lie so that others will form beliefs that are not true. The more consequential the beliefs—that is, the more a person’s well-being demands a correct understanding of the world or of other people’s opinions—the more consequential the lie.

As the philosopher Sissela Bok observed, however, we cannot get far on this topic without first distinguishing between truth and truthfulness—for a person may be impeccably truthful while being mistaken. To speak truthfully is to accurately represent one’s beliefs. But candor offers no assurance that one’s beliefs about the world are true. Nor does truthfulness require that one speak the whole truth, because communicating every fact on a given topic is almost never useful or even possible. Of course, if one is not sure whether or not something is true, representing one’s degree of uncertainty is a form of honesty.

Leaving these ambiguities aside, communicating what one believes to be both true and useful is surely different from concealing or distorting that belief. The intent to communicate honestly is the measure of truthfulness. And most of us do not require a degree in philosophy to distinguish this attitude from its counterfeits.

People tell lies for many reasons. They lie to avoid embarrassment, to exaggerate their accomplishments, and to disguise wrongdoing. They make promises they do not intend to keep. They conceal defects in their products or services. They mislead competitors to gain advantage. Many of us lie to our friends and family members to spare their feelings.

Whatever our purpose in telling them, lies can be gross or subtle. Some entail elaborate ruses or forged documents. Others consist merely of euphemisms or tactical silences. But it is in believing one thing while intending to communicate another that every lie is born. We have all stood on both sides of the divide between what someone believes and what he intends others to understand—and the gap generally looks quite different depending on whether one is the liar or the dupe. The liar often imagines that he does no harm so long as his lies go undetected. But the one lied to rarely shares this view. The moment we consider our dishonesty from the perspective of those we lie to, we recognize that we would feel betrayed if the roles were reversed.

A friend of mine, Sita, was once going to visit the home of another friend and wanted to take her a small gift. Unfortunately, she was traveling with her young son and hadn’t found time to go shopping. As they were getting ready to leave their hotel, however, Sita noticed that the bath products supplied in their room were unusually nice. So she put some soaps, shampoos, and body lotions into a bag, tied it with a ribbon she got at the front desk, and set off.

When Sita presented this gift, her friend was delighted.
“Where did you get them?” she asked.
Surprised by the question, and by a lurching sense of impropriety, Sita sought to regain her footing with a lie: “Oh, we just bought them in the hotel gift shop.”
The next words came from her innocent son: “No, Mommy, you got them in the bathroom!”

Imagine the faces of these women, briefly frozen in embarrassment and then yielding to smiles of apology and forgiveness. This may seem the most trivial of lies—and it was—but it surely did nothing to increase the level of trust between two friends. Funny or not, the story reveals something distasteful about Sita: She will lie when it suits her needs.

The opportunity to deceive others is ever present and often tempting, and each instance of deception casts us onto some of the steepest ethical terrain we ever cross. Few of us are murderers or thieves, but we have all been liars. And many of us will be unable to get into our beds tonight without having told several lies over the course of the day.

What does this say about us and about the life we are making with one another?

Excerpted from the book LYING by Sam Harris. Copyright © 2013 by Sam Harris. Reprinted with permission of Sam Harris. 


This segment aired on December 27, 2013.


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