In Season One of the TV show The Good Place, Chidi Anagonye, an ethics and moral philosophy professor, faces a dilemma when a colleague asks his opinion about a new pair of boots.
Chidi clearly dislikes the boots, which are a garish shade of red and encrusted in crystals, but to spare his colleague’s feelings, he says that he loves them.
Chidi immediately regrets lying and begins obsessing over his moral failings, even as his exasperated girlfriend reassures him, “Sometimes we just lie to be polite.” Eventually, Chidi can no longer bear the guilt and confesses his true feelings to his colleague: “The boots are terrible, and hideous, and I hate them!” The colleague is clearly hurt by the revelation.
For Chidi and some other philosophers, the obligation not to lie trumps all other moral imperatives, including not hurting someone’s feelings. Few people actually adhere to such a strict prescription for honesty, however. Lying is an accepted part of daily life, from our automatic response of good when asked how we are, to the praise we give when a friend asks if we like her awful new haircut (or pair of boots).
Yet despite the ubiquity of lies in our lives, most of us are not very good at detecting deception. What would happen, though, if we could suddenly tell, without a doubt, when we were being lied to? The technological or psychological mechanism that would enable this impossible new skill is not worth dwelling on. Instead, what matters is what it reveals about the often-overlooked and underestimated role lying plays in our lives.
Many researchers believe humans began lying to each other almost as soon as they invented language, primarily as a way to get ahead. “Lying is so easy compared to other ways of gaining power,” Sissela Bok, an ethicist at Harvard University, told National Geographic. “It’s much easier to lie in order to get somebody’s money or wealth than to hit them over the head or rob a bank.”
Throughout human history, lying has also served as “an evolutionary necessity to protect ourselves from harm,” says Michael Lewis, a distinguished professor of paediatrics and psychiatry at Rutgers University. This includes protection from persecution – a purpose that lying still serves today for many people around the world. If we could suddenly detect all lies, lives in countries where infidelity, homosexuality or certain religious beliefs are illegal could be put at risk.
Lying also benefits us when the stakes are less high, including at work. If we told our boss what we really thought of him, or why we actually didn’t make our deadline, we might be fired or demoted. We also lie to make ourselves look better and maintain an air of professionalism. “Recently, I was late to a meeting, and I just said the subway was slow,” says Kang Lee, a professor of applied psychology and human development at the University of Toronto. “In fact, the subway didn’t delay me – I was just late because of my own fault – but I don’t think it would be good for me professionally if my colleagues could detect this.”
On the other hand, there are times at work when it would be beneficial to know when we’re being lied to, says Clark Freshman, a professor of law at the University of California, Hastings, and a specialist in lie detection. By asking the right questions in negotiations and being assured of accurate answers, minority employees, for example, could more easily secure salaries and positions on par with their majority counterparts.
“For me, a world in which people could know the truth that mattered to them would be a great world,” Freshman says. “We’d have less discrimination and more equity.”
We’d also have more hurt feelings. For most of us, a world without lies would deliver an immediate blow to our self-image, says Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioural economics at Duke University. “Living with the truth means you would get more honest, brutal feedback about your work, the way you dress, the way you kiss – all kinds of things like that,” he says. “You would realise that people don’t pay as much attention to you and you’re not as important and highly qualified as you think you are.”
On the other hand, completely honest feedback would give us a chance at self-improvement and learning – but whether it’s a worthwhile trade-off, Ariely is unsure.
These blows to our self-image would begin virtually as soon as we learned to speak – warping childhood development in unpredictable ways. “Imagine a child comes over and says ‘Daddy, mummy, look at my painting!’ and you respond, ‘It’s horrible!’” Lee says. “The negative impacts would be immediate.” Some of the innocence of childhood would also be lost, including magical make-believe such as Father Christmas, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny. Instead, through their inquisitiveness, children would be exposed early on to the harsh realities of life – which would not necessarily be a good thing.
“There’s a lot of things that if children knew about, they’d find hard to understand,” says Paul Ekman, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California, San Francisco. “All concealment, particularly by parents to children, is not malevolent.”
Children themselves learn the social value of lying from a very young age. “Mom might say to the child, ‘Listen, grandma is going to give you a present for Hanukkah, and you’ve got to tell grandma that you like it, otherwise it’ll hurt her feelings,’” Lewis says. By the age of three or four, studies show that many children have mastered the art of the polite lie.
In experiments in an in-press article, Lewis has also found that the more intelligent and emotionally mature the child, the more likely she is to lie when asked if she peeked at a toy she was instructed not to look at. Kang and his colleagues likewise found that learning to lie has cognitive benefits for kids.
By the time we’re adults, most of us are lying on a regular basis. In a hallmark 1996 study, Bella DePaulo, a social psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, found that college students lied about once in every three social interactions, and older adults did so about once in every five social interactions. “In many of the lies of everyday life, people pretend to feel more positively than they really do,” DePaulo wrote on PsychCentral. “If they dislike you, they may try to cover that up. If they are bored by what you are saying, they might make the effort to appear interested.”
Indeed, in terms of interpersonal relationships, “it would be an utter disaster if we could in fact detect lying and deception,” Lewis says. “Lying is a total and complete necessity in a culture in which the moral understanding is you don’t want to hurt the feelings of other people.”
We’re all co-conspirators in the ubiquity of so-called little white lies. “Most people unwittingly, collusively cooperate with the deceiver to allow themselves to be misled,” Ekman says. At the end of a dinner party, for example, we typically tell our hosts that we had a great time – even if we hated every moment. Our hosts readily believe this, having no desire themselves to know just how awful we found their company and food.
The downside to this form of polite lying, Lewis says, is that we might get invited back again –“but that’s the price for sparing the feelings of others.” In a world without such polite lies, friendships would crumble, professional relations would be strained and family gatherings would be even more fraught than they already are.
Our closest romantic relationships are not spared from lies, either. In a now-classic 1989 study conducted by Sandra Metts at the University of Illinois, just 33 of 390 people were unable to recall a situation in which they were “not completely truthful” with a romantic partner. Likewise, in 2013 Jennifer Guthrie and Adrianne Kunkel from the University of Kansas found that just two of 67 participants in a study did not deceive their romantic partners over the course of a single week.
In both studies, most people said they engaged in dishonesty in order to avoid hurting their partner or damaging their relationship. If romances suddenly involved total truthfulness about everything from the way our partner looks in the morning to whether we ever engaged in infidelity, many relationships likely would not last.
“I like to joke that the reason my wife and I have been married 40 years is because we have separate bathrooms,” Ekman says. “That’s only partially a joke, though, because there’s things you don’t want people, even your spouse, to know about – and it isn’t just bathroom behaviour.”
There are some ways that lie-detecting abilities would be unambiguously beneficial, however. For one, we could immediately detect pathological liars, or those who engage in destructive, serial lying that lacks any social merit, Lewis says. Pathological liars are often narcissists whose need for self-deception is driven by an extreme aversion to shame and is so deeply rooted that they believe their own lies – even if they contradict readily-observable facts or statements they’ve made before.
According to Lewis, Donald Trump is a classic example of this. “His self-deception is so enormous that he simply does not know he’s lying,” he says.
Lying in politics, of course, is nothing new, says Vian Bakir, a professor of political communication and journalism at Bangor University in Wales. Plato recognised the merit of the “noble lie,” she says, while the classic political text The Prince for deception’s essential role in political leadership.
That said, however, “lying in politics appears to have become super-charged in recent years,” Bakir says. “What is particularly bad about the current moment is that some prominent politicians like Trump, Vladimir Putin and other strong men around the world have taken to brazen lying as a matter of habit and course and don’t care if they’re found out.”
According to PolitiFact, a fact-checking site owned by the non-profit Poynter Institute for Media Studies, 70% of Donald Trump’s statements are mostly false, false or “pants on fire,” compared just 32% for Hillary Clinton.
Institutions can also brazenly lie, she adds. Britain’s Vote Leave campaigning organization repeatedly stated that the EU costs the UK over £350 million every week – a claim that the UK Statistics Authority later called “a clear misuse of official statistics.”
“Given that this claim was not just wrong but a significant and deliberate part of the campaigning material, it would be fair to say that there was deceptive intent there,” Bakir says.
Despite ample evidence of dishonesty among certain politicians and political groups, support among core voters tends to remain strong. Bakir points out that studies show that people who strongly believe misinformation are very hard to persuade otherwise, and adds that that, as a species, we suffer from confirmation bias, or a predisposition to believe things that fit into our worldview.
In a world in which people could automatically detect lying for themselves, however, support of dishonest politicians could fall by the wayside. “A lot of Trump supporters think this person is getting a bum rap, that he’s not really lying,” Freshman says. “But if people could find out through their own knowledge that they’re being lied to, I think a lot of them would stop making excuses.”
A world without lies would throw international relations and diplomacy into chaos, but ultimately, citizens would likely benefit from more honest politicians and officials. The same applies to policing and criminal justice. Police violence and bias would decrease – officers could simply ask suspects if they are carrying a weapon or if they are responsible for a crime – and trials would be replaced with a simple set of questions to determine guilt.
“I certainly think this would have benevolent applications in the criminal justice world,” Ekman says. “We want the perpetrator to be found and we don’t want to misjudge an innocent person and punish someone for a crime they didn’t commit.”
It’s impossible to predict all the ways we would benefit and suffer if all lies were laid bare, but what is for certain is that the world would be a very different place to the one we live in today. Humans, however, are adaptable, and “over time, we would develop new norms and acceptable codes of social conduct,” Bakir says.
At the same time, she continues, we would likely do all we could to develop new ways of lying and deceiving each other, whether through technology, drugs, social behaviour or mental training.
Kang agrees. “I’m 100% certain we’d continue to deceive each other somehow, we’d just find a different way to do it. It’s a life necessity.”