We’ve all done it. Some only on rare occasions, some habitually. Some do it for revenge, others to impress, some for the sake of convenience and some out of cowardice. We lie.
We even lie to ourselves. Just yesterday I lied to myself about how many calories I had. I didn’t count the poppy seed muffin because I ate it standing up over the sink.
And I was probably lying more to myself than the telephone solicitor when I said that I already gave. I did, but it was two years ago.
We even have categories for our lies: the bald-faced lie, the half-truth and the little white lie. Some lies have little consequence, but others can destroy a marriage or collapse a business.
Much of the Israeli airport security screening hinges on detecting dishonesty in passengers through open-ended conversations about where they are going and why. One thing they’ve discovered is that smart people can maintain the consistency of lies better than dumb people.
Professor R. Edward Geiselman summarized the findings of 60 studies on detecting deception. He found deceptive people say as a little as possible and tend to give justification for what they are saying without being prompted. Deceptive people repeat questions before answering them, start speaking slowly as they create their story and gradually get faster. Truthful people tend to look away when answering a difficult question because they are concentrating, while a liar may look away briefly, if at all.
As a parent, discerning when your child is lying is one of the hardest things you do. If you have a kid with a good poker face, it becomes even harder.
There is a parable about honesty that resonates well with children and maybe it’s because the culprit is the parent, not the child. A man was going to steal wheat from his neighbor’s fields at night. He planned to steal a little from each field so the neighbor wouldn’t notice. He took his little girl with him, telling her to stand guard and yell if someone saw him.
At each field she yelled, “Someone sees you.” Each time the man hastily moved to a different field. When he finished stealing the grain, the man asked his little girl who had seen him. “Someone up above,” she said.
That old parable dovetails with findings of Dan Ariely, author of “The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone — Especially Ourselves.”
Ariely gave subjects five minutes to solve math puzzles, paying for each correct answer. Subjects scoring their own answers, and allowed to shred their papers, reported higher scores than those not allowed to shred their papers. Also, subjects who signed their name at the top of the test, instead of at the end, were less likely to be dishonest.
In another variation, one group was asked to recall the Ten Commandments before taking the test and the other group was asked to recall 10 books. In the group asked to recall the Ten Commandments, researchers observed no cheating. When they reran the experiment on self-declared atheists, asking them to swear on a Bible, they got the same no-cheating results again.
Ariely said ethics lectures seemed to have no effect on behavior, but reminders of morality codes at the point of decision have a huge effect.
Maybe the key to honesty really is that simple. Someone up above is watching.