A lie may seem small until its full ramifications are known.The snowball effect of lying permits even the smallest of fibs to have random, unpredictable, and sometimes significant results. Just as one snowflake too many can trigger an avalanche, so a single untruth can trigger a massive cover-up effort. As the story gets more complicated, often even the liar forgets what lies were told.
If you ask 20 different people about lying, cheating, boasting, deceiving, and fibbing, you’ll get 20 different responses. For our purposes, let’s call a lie any deliberate misleading of another person, whether by concealing the truth or by saying something false.
Lying is something everyone does. No one really wants to know about your acne problem or that your dog’s barking kept you up all night. Even the most honest, truthful person will probably reply without thinking to the question “How are you?” “Fine, thank you,” even though he has a nagging headache.
The reasons for lying are as varied as the people who tell them. Paul Ekman in his book Why Kids Lie offers the following list of reasons: * To avoid being punished * To get something you couldn’t get otherwise * To protect friends from trouble * To protect someone from harm * To win the admiration or interest of others * To avoid creating an awkward social situation * To avoid embarrassment * To maintain privacy * To demonstrate your power over an authority
Or, more simply, as Dr. Benjamin Spock says in his classic book Baby and Child Care, “A child isn’t naturally deceitful. When he lies regularly it means that he is under too much pressure of some kind.”
For example, a young person might sometimes feel parents or teachers are too demanding or his or her friends want to do something that individual really doesn’t want to do. Pressures exerted on people often force them into corners, and lies become easier to tell.
If Jim cheats on a test because he knows he’ll be grounded for bringing home anything less than an “A,” he isn’t only being dishonest with his parents and his teachers, but with himself. He may be able to make the “A” on his own, but feels his parents‘ expectations are too great to risk disappointing them; he cheats to make sure he succeeds.
Another reason we lie is to protect ourselves or a friend from harm. Although it gives us an uneasy feeling, most people will lie to protect a friend. The extent of the lie often depends on the severity of the “crime.”
Toni, for example, was goofing around and broke a lamp at Beverly’s house. Beverly then told her mother that she didn’t know how the lamp got broken, although she was there when Toni broke it. Beverly covered up for Toni because she felt it was an accident and that the lamp could easily be replaced. Had Toni deliberately smashed an expensive lamp, Beverly would probably have told her mother the truth.
Toni herself said nothing because she was embarrassed about breaking the lamp and because she feared that she or Beverly would be punished.
Learning to Lie
Young people also lie because, at times, telling the truth can be difficult or socially awkward. Young children, in their open honesty, often say things that embarrass their parents. As children mature, they see their parents telling “white lies” in these situations, and the children learn what not to say.
Many parents coach their children to deceive others in potentially dangerous situations. Deceiving people about where you live or where your parents work maintains privacy and can reduce the chance of an unwanted guest knocking on the door while a child is at home alone.
Another deceit that is learned involves tattling. Children who voluntarily tattle, whether it be out of spite or a sense of righteousness, are mistrusted by their playmates.
Lying isn’t done just by children, either. The year 1987 has been called The Year of Lying by many of the nation’s major newspapers and magazines because of the Iran-Contra hearings and other political indiscretions. In a survey conducted by the Washington Post, 66 percent of Americans believed President Ronald Reagan was an honest man, yet at the same time, 65 percent felt he was lying about the Iran-contra affair.
The seeming contradiction in the survey results highlights people’s ambivalent attitudes toward lying. No one is quite sure where to draw the line because there are no clearcut rules.
No one can gauge the effect any one lie may have, just as it is impossible to know which snowflake will cause that avalanche. It’s up to each of us to make a decision about lying – and be ready to handle the consequences of that decision.
Even a small lie can have severe consequences because it could trigger a cover-up effort. People lie to protect their friends, maintain their privacy, avoid embarrassment or avoid punishment.