To Be Perfectly Honest

Dec 4, 2009   //   by Steve Wooding   //   A Slice of Lemon  //  No Comments

“The greatest way to live with honour in this world is to be what we pretend to be.”
[Socrates, 4th-century BC Greek philosopher]

“Truth fears no questions.”

(912 words – approx. 5-8 mins to read)

Take a moment now to think of a few quotes or sayings you can remember about honesty.

Chances are at least one of them was “Honesty is the best policy” or something similar. But is it always what’s best?

We are all actually dishonest – deceptive – about three times in every ten minutes of normal daily conversation, according to psychologist and deception expert Paul Eckman. If you’re surprised by that, or perhaps insulted and would protest that you’d never be that dishonest, bear in mind that there’s more than one type of dishonesty.

For example, family members might use deception to keep a harsh medical truth from an elderly relative. A manager might fake pleasantries with those higher up the corporate ladder in order to maintain and advance their own position and power. Sales staff may masquerade as friends in order to sell things to customers. Many of us dress up and make sure we look our best on a night out, pretending to be someone we’re not in order to fit in to a social group, or to pull. We all use sarcasm, thinly veiled witticisms, cheeky retorts and other tricks of the tongue to hide our real thoughts and feelings. And I’m sure if you thought some more you’d come up with many other examples too…

According to the experts, there are three basic kinds of deception:

  1. Evasion
  2. Editing
  3. Lying

EVASION is the technique we employ to avoid answering a question or query directly, and this can involve asking a question in return, protesting at being asked the question in the first place, changing the subject and a number of other tactics all designed to side-step being direct and honest in our reply.

EDITING is simply leaving out important details that are relevant but haven’t been directly asked for, or very carefully rewording happenings or opinions in order to, again, avoid hurting someone’s feelings or escape being caught out. This is sometimes referred to as ‘the lie of omission’.

Evasion and editing are the techniques we use most frequently to deceive, usually to either avoid hurting someone’s feelings or to escape being caught out. Just take a moment to think now about how you might reply if, for example, a friend has bought some new clothes and is quite excited about them but you don’t think they suit them and they ask you, “So, what do you think?” I’ll bet there’d be a hefty dose of evasion and editing in your reply if you value that friendship at all…

Outright LYING, on the other hand, is saying something that is definitely not true, whether it’s about events or opinions. There are, however, two kinds of outright lie:

Firstly, there’s the deliberate lie – a choice to mislead by telling someone something false, whether it’s about events, e.g. “I was working late at the office” when in fact you’d gone to the bar with one of your attractive colleagues, or your opinions, e.g. “It looks fantastic!”

The second form of lying is what’s known as ‘confabulation’. This happens when we confuse similar events with one another, or we mix imagination with reality. Elizabeth Loftus (another psychologist and expert in memory and eye-witness testimony) also found that we ‘fill in’ gaps in our memories of events with what might reasonably have happened, we imagine happened or wanted to happen, or with what other people have told us happened, and then we repeat it as ‘the truth’, despite it having been more of a ‘join the dots’ effort!*

Having read all this, you’ll no doubt be realising that deception and lies tax our minds in ways that simply telling the truth doesn’t, such as remembering the story we’ve spun so far, or having to reword everything we think before we say it. Yet we still choose to deceive, so why?

Well, as with most behaviours, it’s learned during early childhood when we first begin to acquire language skills and realise that what we say and what really happened don’t have to match. We realise we can avoid punishment, shift blame, receive extra attention or praise, manipulate relationships of our own and even between other people. That choice to deceive is usually based on a risk vs. reward balance, with questions like:

  • What could I gain from this deception?
  • What could I risk if I lie?
  • What could I risk by telling the truth?
  • What benefit might there be in being open and honest?
  • What do I risk if my deception is discovered?

Although we’re usually well aware that there are risks to deceiving, whether we like it or not there are actually risks to being perfectly honest too, especially if that honesty is unfiltered!

So are there any aspects of life that might actually be easier and simpler if we were perfectly honest with everyone? Or if we were perfectly honest with ourselves?

With Christmas rapidly approaching, I’ll leave you to ponder that last question until next time!


* Perhaps more worryingly, confabulation can also occur as False Memory Syndrome, where people come to believe, usually through so-called ‘recovered memory therapy’ that their current personal issues were caused by some trauma or abuse that happened during their childhood when in fact the ‘memories’ were actually created during clumsy use of therapeutic techniques.

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