We instinctively recoil from people in authority who are publicly exposed as liars, feeling cheated and seeing them as tarnished individuals. Yet whether we like to admit it or not, we all have an intimate relationship with lies, fibs and tall tales.
According to a 2002 study conducted by the University of Massachusetts, 60% of adults can’t have a ten minute conversation without lying at least once.
I personally never lie, as I was telling Bill Gates and his wife Melinda the other night at dinner, on George Clooney‘s new super-yacht.
I don’t go out of my way to invent whoppers, but we are all prone to being rather ‘economical with the truth’ when it suits us. And half the time we are barely aware of our own dishonesty.
“A lie can travel around the world and back again while the truth is lacing up its boots.”
Children are notorious for their ability to deny wrongdoing, even when caught with their hand in the cookie jar, or proclaiming their innocence with a chocolate-covered face.
I can certainly remember being discovered lying as a child, and feeling that awful sense of shame, mixed with the massive disappointment that you’ve been caught. Of course my own misdemeanours were relatively minor – I may have pinched a few sweets here and there, or lied about not trying to modify my brother’s head with a hammer that time. But I swear I never masterminded that brilliant heist of a lorry-load of bubble gum. That was a simple case of mistaken identity, which was blown out of all proportion.
Politicians in particular have a reputation for speaking with forked tongues. Whether it was Prime Minister Tony Blair taking us to war on phony evidence, or crooked Tory ministers claiming outrageous expenses and covering it up, we certainly see a lot of it from those appointed to positions of trust and responsibility.
And of course corporations and the super-rich effectively bend reality to claim they are not liable for taxes, in a way no small business or ordinary person could get away with.
So we live in a world of double standards: preaching honesty and integrity to children, while as adults we lie, cheat and manipulate for our own selfish ends.
In some cases we pay people lots of money to lie to us for entertainment purposes. Magicians pretend to saw women in half, or make elephants appear out of hats. (Or is it the other way round?)
Actors pretend to be somebody else all the time, but of course we are complicit in the deception and happily play along.
“Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art.”
Perhaps the most audacious lies inspire a sort of grudging admiration. Conmen like the Scotsman Gregor MacGregor for example, who In 1822 made a striking announcement. He was, he said, not only a local banker’s son, but the Cazique, or prince, of the land of Poyais along Honduras’s Black River. He raised a fortune from investors, with tales of fabulous opportunities in a new promised land, and scores of would-be settlers travelled across the Atlantic (in seven ships) in search of a new life. Imagine their shock on discovering a wasteland, with no port, and no opportunities of any kind. It was a complete invention. How they didn’t string him up there and then is a mystery, and he escaped to France where he attempted the scam all over again.
Self-deception is another category of lying with which we are all too familiar. Psychologists have shown that most of us have a wildly distorted sense of our own character and maintain numerous untruths and delusions about our present as well as our past.
Most people judge themselves to be better than average drivers for example, and more skilled at most tasks than in reality. At its most extreme, people fall prey to the Dunning-Kruger effect, where ‘relatively unskilled persons suffer illusory superiority.’
Perhaps our tendency to ‘big ourselves up’ in numerous ways is an essential psychological survival mechanism, where our little lies and biases protect us from too much harsh reality.
A society based on absolute honesty might be tricky:
‘Does my bum look big in this dress?’
‘Yes, it looks like the planet Jupiter.’
‘Ouch! I was just kidding.. It’s very slimming on you..’
We must all negotiate a twisting path through life’s jungle of deception, hacking our way through the dense thicket of fibs, delusions and fantasies. Lies are an integral part of being human, even if we aspire to honesty and integrity. They can protect us or ruin us and we must always be on our guard.
Now I must go get ready, I’m meeting Stephen Hawking and Lady Gaga for cocktails, and my rocket-bike needs refuelling.
© Copyright Jason Lennick 2016. All rights reserved.