“You? Fat? No way!” “With all due respect, officer, that wasn’t a red light!” Every day, billions of lies leave the mouths of billions of people. Lying is a moral pollution that we declare harmful but seem to believe is indispensable in life.

Today, “white” lies are considered a social tool, one that studies say women use more often than men, at the cost of feelings of remorse. It is also said that women generally lie to help others feel better, while men lie to brag about themselves.

Women and men alike lie to their children for educational purposes, a recent study showed.

According to research, the most commonly used “educational” lie is told by parents to their children, telling them when leaving they will be left alone in a public place if they are not good. Other instrumental lies include motivation, either positive (“The tooth fairy will give you money if you let that tooth come out”, “How beautifully you played the piano!”), or negative (“You will go blind if you do not eat your vegetables”).

Thanks for lying to me

“Most often, the lies we are exposed to are not venal, but rather ways to make social interactions proceed more smoothly”, says sociologist Robert Feldman, best known for his book The Liar in Your Life: The Way to Truthful Relationships.

Our society seems to have incorporated lying into its structure. As Feldman observes, two people who barely know each other lie, on average, three times every ten minutes in their dialogue. To those astonished by the impact this statistic could have globally, Feldman warns them not to be fooled: the reality is that people are not seekers of truth as we like to believe. “It turns out that in many cases we accept and even embrace the lies of others,” the sociologist says. “In some cases, it is simply expedient to accept others’ lies.”

Still, Feldman says that, “many of us lie to ourselves as much as we are lied to by others… When lies are consistent with the way we wish to view ourselves (as smart, competent, successful people), we’re often motivated to believe the lies to which we are exposed.”

The liar’s excuses

After extensive research in the field, Feldman concluded that, in every human being’s life, there is undoubtedly at least one liar, and that in these circumstances, if we want to understand the real impact of deception, we should think about the reasons why we consider certain lies to be harmless, while rejecting others as manipulative and unscrupulous.

First, people are tempted to consider their own lies less dangerous to society than the lies of others. They always have “good” reasons for lying.

After analysing hundreds of interviews about lies and their excuses, Dr Bella DePaulo and her colleagues in the Department of Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara made a list of the seven most common excuses that people make to gather the courage to lie:

1. Nothing serious will happen if I lie; it’s an innocent lie.
2. No one will confront me directly.
3. Even if they found out that I lied, I can make it up to the one I lied, and the relationship between us will not suffer.
4. I have the best of intentions.
5. I will confess—but not now.
6. I will only confess if there is no direct consequence to my lie.
7. The lie will remain only between us.

American psychologist Dan Ariely, considered a guru of applied psychology in the field of economics, believes that excuses play a vital role in resorting to lying. Moreover, he bravely argues that the widespread idea that people choose whether to lie or not according to the resulting advantages or disadvantages, is wrong. In his book, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, Ariely argues that excuses influence one’s decision to lie, because people want to be able to look in the mirror and see themselves as honest people. On the other hand, they also want to obtain the benefits they can get by being dishonest. The only way to have both is to find a good excuse.

Psychological distance

Ariely believes that psychological distance is the biggest excuse for lying. That is, as long as there is a sufficiently large psychological distance between the deceiver and the deceived, there’s more room for lying.

For instance, few people would steal a pen from a bookstore, explains the psychologist, but many people steal pens from work without feeling that they are doing something wrong.

Similarly, few people would leave a restaurant without paying for what they ate, but many illegally download music or movies from the Internet without believing they have committed a crime.

The society we live in predisposes us to distance: credit cards, electronic equipment, mortgages, and the stock exchange are all instruments of our long-distance relationships. That is why, Ariely points out, the tendency to look for excuses for lying is global, and this way of thinking has a more damaging impact than we might be inclined to believe.

In a presentation at an event organized by the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce, Ariely recounts an experiment he conducted to analyse how people relate to lying. The researchers gave around 30,000 people the opportunity to earn money and maximize their earnings if they lied (without being caught). Of the 30,000 people, only 12 cheated as much as they could, earning much more than they would have if they acted correctly. Together, they stole about $150, says Ariely. Apart from them, out of the same sample of 30,000 people, 18,000 stole only a little each. In the end, however, the total damage caused by those who cheated only a little was $36,000.

According to Ariely, this result reflects what is happening in society.

Ariely is convinced that, in reality, there are just a few “big corrupts” and that most of the deception is produced by the so-called “good people”, who only steal a little. But because there are so many, the damage done by them is much greater.

In his novel, Three Men in a Boat, Jerome K. Jerome tells an anecdote about the area people lie about the most: fishing. “I knew a young man once, he was a most conscientious fellow, and, when he took to fly-fishing, he determined never to exaggerate his hauls by more than twenty-five per cent. ‘When I have caught forty fish,’ said he, ‘then I will tell people that I have caught fifty, and so on. But I will not lie any more than that, because it is sinful to lie.’ This anecdote shows how ridiculous it is to try to divide lies into “innocent” and “sinful”, as long as there is no universal standard by which to assess the damages.

The haze of “white” lies

Of course, Ariely is speaking about physical damage, but the same principle can be applied to lying. A white lie is like a pen stolen from the office. We tell ourselves that no one will notice, that it is not that big of a loss. However, by zooming out to the bigger picture to include more than just the advantages, it becomes clear that white lies erode intimacy and increase the distance in our relationships.

Pictured at the societal level, white lies become a haze that prevents us from seeing each other clearly.

What are the consequences? Consider, for example, the power of influence that the whitest of lies can have (undeserved positive feedback). If people always tell you that you look great, or that you gave a great presentation, this will leave its mark on the way you see yourself. If you are a mediocre individual, being sure of some extraordinary but false qualities is a sure recipe for perpetuating failure.

The billions of “innocent” lies we are talking about build an environment of generalised deception, as Feldman believes, a very hospitable setting for the big lies. It is not only proverbs that teach us that a small lie attracts a larger one (“He who will steal an egg will steal an ox”), but psychologists’ studies too.

However, studies only reveal things, they don’t make changes. To change the situation, it takes a little more than knowing that women actually lie less often than men (the opposite claim, made at the beginning of this article, is a lie, written by me, a woman)[5], because, it is usually the exceptions that hurt the most.

Lies: what can you do?

The good news is that change also needs an exception: the decision to do something other than what your impulses or the rest of the world dictates. Sometimes, it’s enough to breathe the fresh air of trust in an honest relationship to feel repulsion towards imposture, hypocrisy, and “trickery”. Other times, you may need to get burnt by someone’s lie so badly that you dislike the idea of sharing the habit.

For some, the shame of being caught helps them speed up their repentance, while for others, the model of integrity inspires them as a value in itself.

Usually, those who have an intrinsic motivation not to lie find it easier to be faithful to their integrity, while those who first count the benefits find it harder to be honest. That is because lying is advantageous in the short term and it seems an irresistible slippery slope. But beyond their short legs, lies have another disadvantage: unlike sincerity, they don’t solve problems, only mask them. Sincerity in an insincere world is, instead, a school whose graduates have learned to pull through the hard way, facing the truth, not running away from it. And, most of the time, only they can understand why a satisfied soul accompanies this.

To be fair, giving up lying can be hard. But it is equally true that no one can force you to lie, not even your personal habit. A good place to start might be trying to honestly answer the commonplace question: “How are you?”

Alina Kartman is a senior editor at Signs of the Times and ST Network.