When I was a little kid, my parents would strongly advise me not to lie, but they would still tell lies at the drop of a hat in front of me.
My confusion only escalated when I pointed out their lies, and they disciplined me for talking out of turn. Even more confusing was when they would calmly tell me that they knew better when and when not to lie—and I should stop trying to understand the difference.
I did not tell them, but I never took their advice. I have always been fascinated by the phenomena of lying—not just in terms of lies from my parents, but from everyone, including myself.
I have witnessed lies in different situations. Some people lie to add spice to a story they are narrating for their friends.
Some lie to protect themselves from the hard truth. Some will lie to boost their self-image. Some might lie to receive benefits they would not receive if they did not lie.
A very common categorization of lies is “white” lies. Basically, if there is a good reason behind lying, the lie will become a white one—if not, the lie is not a white lie.
Another categorization of lying is suggested by Dr. David Carig, the author of the book “Detect Deceit:” self-focused lies and other-focused lies. Self-focused lies are intended to help the self, whereas the other-focused lies are more benevolent and are meant to help others.
The different types of categorizations for understanding lies do not end here. In fact, I have seen other categories, such as social, professional, entertaining, necessary and illegal lies.
Similar to any other social categorization, types of lies often live in a gray area. There are lies that are good and okay to tell, and lies that are not okay and are bad.
However, there is a common paradox to all of these categorizations. The paradox is that persons who are going to label each and every lie they come across as a means of justification tend to unconsciously lie to themselves.
The scientific term for unconscious self-lying is confabulation. David McRaney, a journalist and a self-described psychology nerd, in his book “You Are Not So Smart,” warns his readers about this by drawing our attention to the general misconception that human beings always know when they lie to themselves.
On the other hand, we also have an innate tendency to preserve our self-image. This is implied in one of the most famous social psychology concepts: cognitive dissonance theory. This theory states people have a “bias to seek consonance between their expectations and reality.”
In plain English, cognitive dissonance theory says we do not mind lying to ourselves if it makes us feel better.
All types of lie categorizations will pale in the light of these understandings. We can excuse ourselves for lying, but we can also lie to ourselves. Who is to say we are not lying to ourselves in justifying our lying?
Every time I relay all of this to my friends, they give me bewildered looks and occasionally ask me how we could possibly remedy this problem. I always answer, “It is okay if you have to lie to me, but do me a favor and do not ever lie to yourself.”
What I am suggesting is that we do not need to stop lying all together, as many religions command us, but be conscious of when we do lie.
Once that happens, you will start having a long list of situations and reasons that have caused you to lie. This will help you in two ways.
First, you become more critical of yourself and you will have more room for self-improvement, as you see the futility of most of your lies.
Second and more importantly, when you are lied to by others, you will find it much easier to sympathize instead of taking offense. If you have been that lying person before, you know there is nothing personal about most of the lies that you are told.
Even more powerfully, you also know there is a possibility that the person lying to you does not even know that they are lying.