How often do you lie? It’s probably more often than you realize

September 5, 2021 9:00 am

(Photo by via Unsplash)

This summer, I contributed a chapter on falsehood to an influential book edited by Alex Grech, founding director of the 3CL Foundation. Alex also teaches new media at the University of Malta.

The book’s title puts our global situation in perspective: “Media, Technology and Education in a Post-Truth Society: From Fake News, Datafication and Mass Surveillance to the Death of Trust.”

Fake news involves sources, commentators and journalists disseminating lies. Datafication involves algorithms and social media that affirm preconceptions rather than inform us. Mass surveillance involves covert technologies that mine our data and track us.

Grech and multiple authors document the impact of falsehood on our psyche. “Readers are challenged to question their own role in perpetuating certain narratives and to also understand the lived context of people on all sides of a given debate.”

Catastrophic consequences

In recent years we have lost trust in government, democracy, elections, science, media, vaccines and each other. America’s 600,000 COVID-19 deaths and the Jan. 6 insurrection stand as testament to consequences.

“The Big Lie” typically refers to the claim that former President Trump won the 2020 election in a landslide. He garnered 74 million votes, which eclipsed Barack Obama’s popular vote record; but President Joe Biden did better, with a staggering 81 million votes.

My book chapter, “Fact to Fake: The Media World as It Was and Is Today,” discusses how journalism contributed to big lies, with outlets downsizing newsrooms and investing in partisan “analysts” rather than reporters.

We have not yet lost trust in business, the lifeblood of a capitalist system, providing social mobility, wealth and well-being to millions. Nearly two-thirds of Americans still trust business, conferring to CEOs “a pivotal new role to play in rebuilding public trust in information and bridging the United States’ growing partisan divide.”

Nevertheless, business leaders worry that our culture of lies eventually will undermine capitalism.

According to an Industry Week op-ed, “Living in the Age of the Big Lie,” we face “an era of unprecedented public dishonesty, blurring the lines between fact, opinion and noisy speculation. This is bad for America and American business: Democratic capitalist societies require truth and transparency for their institutions to remain viable.”

Stephen Gold, CEO of the Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation, warns that social media lies erode corporate stock value. Worse, he adds, “When people see no moral obligation to be honest, they will use deceit to undermine businesses with policies or practices they oppose.”

Why do people lie?

Typically they do so to avoid embarrassment, escape punishment, spare others of hurt or embarrassment, and avoid confrontation. They also resort to falsehood to benefit financially, personally, romantically and professionally.

For more than 25 years, at Ohio University and later at Iowa State, I surveyed media ethics students about why they lie.

Falsehoods have consequences. Small lies lead to bigger ones; half-truths and exaggeration mislead the public. Details of a lie change with each telling, but the truth remains the same.

Keeping a lying journal

My students keep “a lying journal” with these instructions:

  1. For a period of one week, keep track of all the white lies, half-truths and falsehoods that you say or indicate to others.
    • Under each incident or item, briefly note the immediate, future or possible consequences of the lie.
  2. Keep track of all the white lies, half-truths and falsehoods that others say or indicate to you.
    • Under each incident or item, briefly note the immediate, future or possible consequences of the lie.
  3. Keep track of times when you wanted to tell a white lie, half-truth or falsehood … but caught yourself and told the truth or declined to answer the question (doing so in a polite, discreet or appropriate way).
  4. In your journal, write about what you learned from the exercise.

On average, students underestimate the consequences of their own lies but overreact when they catch others in lies. They tell some 36 lies per week and catch others in lies about 11 times. They are tempted to lie but tell the truth a mere six times per week.

In anonymous comments, students share experiences.

“Throughout the lying exercise,” one student writes, “I realized I lie a lot without even noticing. At first, it was hard to catch myself lying, but as the week went on, I paid more attention to what I was saying and what others were saying to determine if they were lying to me.”

Another student notes, “One thing I learned from this exercise is I do not think about telling a lie before I do. The only reason I caught myself in the last week was because of this exercise. Usually, I would not have stopped and told the truth.”

Take the lying journal challenge and see how often you lie  — face-to-face and digitally — in one week. Then track the consequences of those falsehoods, half-truths, exaggerations and white lies.

You may make important self-discoveries.

We all have the obligation to restore truth in society. Just as little lies eventually lead to bigger ones, small truths lead to significant ones that enhance character and career.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Michael Bugeja
Michael Bugeja

Michael Bugeja is the author of "Living Media Ethics" (Routledge/Taylor & Francis) and "Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine" (Oxford Univ. Press). He is a regular contributor to Iowa Capital Dispatch and is writing a series of columns on the topic of "Living Ethics." Views expressed here are his own.