Why We Lie

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Several months ago, my wife and I began toilet training our son, Cruise (the Montessori method is to train toddlers to use the toilet as early as possible).  We’d diligently put him on a small potty in his bathroom as often as we could drag ourselves into doing it and repeat over and over to him, “Pee pee on the potty, Cruise.  Pee pee on the potty.”  In order to get him to remain sitting on it so that he might actually pee into it, we’d read books to him, which he loves more than almost anything.

Like many toddlers, when his bedtime arrives, he often prefers to stay up playing with his parents.  One night as we were laying him down in his crib, he surprised us by grabbing his diaper with his hand and exclaiming, “Pee pee on potty.  Pee pee on potty” in a plaintive, expectant voice.  But we knew he didn’t need to pee as we’d just taken a freshly wet diaper off him.

We realized abruptly that he was intentionally lying to us in order to avoid going to sleep.  Other than being dumbfounded that the idea to lie in order to get what he wanted would occur to him at only 20 months of age, it got me thinking about how lying seems almost hard-wired into us and about all the reasons we do it.


Lying by omission (by simply not admitting something) may seem less heinous than speaking an untruth directly, but the intent to deceive is the same.  As well, people are complex and rarely have only one reason for doing anything.  So we may tell a co-worker who’s asked us out on a date we can’t go out with him (or her) because of a company policy that expressly forbids it—which technically may be true—but which nevertheless enables us to avoid confessing the true reason for our refusal, that we don’t find him (or her) attractive.  This still represents an attempt to deceive, so though we may content ourselves that we at least told a partial truth, we can’t claim to have been entirely honest either.


In general, we lie to obtain protection.  We protect:

  1. Ourselves, lying often to avoid suffering painful consequences, shame, embarrassment, or conflict.
  2. Our interests.  Probably the second most common reason we lie is to get what we want.  We lie to get material goods (like money) and non-material goods (like attention from the telling of tall tales).
  3. Our image.  We all want others to think well of us, yet we all do things we ourselves consider less than respectable at times.  Rather than admit it, however, and suffer a diminution of others’ respect, we often cover it up.  Or, having failed to act courageously and virtuously, we lie to appear more courageous and virtuous than we are.
  4. Our resources.  We often lie to avoid expending energy or time doing something we really don’t want to do (going out with a friend we find boring, attending a party we know we won’t enjoy, working on a project about which we’re not really enthused) but don’t feel comfortable admitting.
  5. Others.  When asked if we like a haircut, shoes, writing, or a performance, we often lie to protect our friends’ and family’s feelings.  In their book Nurtureshock Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman present evidence that children lie to their parents far more often than parents realize because they think telling their parents what they want to hear will make them happier than telling them they failed to live up to their parents’ expectations in some way.  According to the research, forcefully confronting any suspected lying only makes children work harder at lying better.


The idea of not lying is strangely controversial.  Most people seem to feel lying in some circumstances is not only acceptable but desirable.  And, in fact, I agree.  If you have to lie, for example, to save someone’s life, or if lying turns out to be ultimately more compassionate than telling the truth (the removal of suffering and imparting of joy, the appropriate ultimate end of all behavior), lying is probably the correct course of action to take.

But most of the time most of us don’t lie out of the spirit of compassion.  And even when we do, we usually make the assumption that people are essentially fragile and have egos that will likely collapse, or at the very least be injured, if they hear unpleasant feedback.

But there’s a wonderful, if subtle, benefit to aiming for honesty in as many circumstances as we can:  it motivates us to strive to become all the good things lying helps us pretend we already are.  Every time we come up against one of the above-mentioned reasons for lying, it unmasks a character defect we then have the opportunity to change.  To live with the intent to avoid doing anything we’d ever feel the need to cover up leads to a remarkably stress-reduced life.

Imagine developing a reputation for brutal honesty upon which others know they can always rely.  What an invaluable resource you’d become!  People who say they want to hear the truth but are in reality more interested in being praised will quickly learn either not to ask you for your views or that the value of hearing the truth, no matter how painful, is greater than keeping their egos protected because it affords them the opportunity to reflect and self-improve.  Others often have a far more accurate perspective on our character flaws than we do.  If we’re genuinely interested in improving ourselves or our work, what we need from them is the truth, not flattery, even in matters that appear at first glance trifling.


I used to promulgate an image of myself as a rigorously and consistently honest person—as someone always driven to reveal the core truth of any matter—but that image was itself for a long time a lie.  Over the years, though, as I’ve challenged my character flaws motivated out of a desire to better myself without any regard to becoming more honest specifically, I’ve found myself gradually and naturally lying less and less as the clearing out of my negativity has left me with fewer and fewer motivations to do so.  Not that I have a perfect record by any means.  But the number of lies I’ve told over the last few years has dwindled so low that I can actually remember each one.  I can’t tell you how much more I like myself because of it, how proud of myself I am when I feel the temptation to lie and resist it.

When our son Cruise told his little lie, my wife and I looked at each other in amazement.

“He’s lying,” I told her.

“I know,” she said.

We almost laughed to think that as soon as the human animal figures out it has desires it almost as quickly discovers lying as an effective way to fulfill them.

We both recognized in that moment that truth telling is a skill we’ll need to help our son practice—which we started that night by smiling down at him gently, patting his little tummy, telling him we loved him as we do every night, and then quietly slipping out of his bedroom and closing the door.

Next weekPreparation Prevents Piss-Poor Performance

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  • Happy New Year, Alex, and thanks again for writing a wonderful blog.

    Julia: Happy New Year to you, too!


  • Thanks…I’m not going to lie…I was preparing for my next lie when I read the article…

    Yes, it comes down to the personal behavior and living in a way that doesn’t cause us to need to lie…

    Could this be the underlining cause of the huge Tiger Woods uproar? Not trying to get that thread going anymore, but isn’t the lie what got people so upset? Stop, no need to continue Tiger conversation. Unless, you’ve got some information, then I could be the $$$$ agent.

    Okay, best of luck to everyone with reducing the need to lie and coming to terms with the fact that others are going to lie, it’s human nature! Even for 20 month-olds.

    All the best,


  • What occurs to me as I read this is probably not what you intended…I’m thinking of the protection afforded in the US Constitution to defendants in criminal trials. Individuals have a right not to incriminate themselves—the popular right to remain silent. Too often when someone “takes the 5th,” there is an assumption that they are lying and/or guilty. It seems to me that your definition of lying by omission would sweep rather broadly over this ground.

    You say that at times one should lie when a life is on the line. I’m curious, does that include one’s own life in the sense that the consequences may involve financial and personal ruin (not to mention prison or even death), and the “lie” is a simple refusal to talk? Keeping in mind, of course, that an innocent person might have very good reason to invoke the Constitution. Is that ethical in your view?

    Very interesting entry—sorry if my comment is too far afield, but I am wondering what your thoughts are.


    B: I left open the possibility it might be acceptable to lie when a life was on the line because I can conceive of circumstances in which that might be the moral, compassionate thing to do: if a would-be assassin wanted to know how to find my mother in order to kill her, I wouldn’t hesitate to lie to prevent it. To “take the 5th” in order to cover up one’s wrongdoing might be a right afforded us by the Constitution but it would amount to deception aimed at protecting oneself. If guilty, why not accept responsibility and the consequences? Certainly innocent people have been wrongly accused of crimes throughout history. But if so, what would they have to lie about? Really interesting questions. I’d love to hear what others think.


  • Thank you for the article. While it remains meaningful to work toward the goal of telling the truth, I wonder “whose” truth are we telling. Truth is often culturally determined, too often religiously determined, and often changes with time and view. There is an Irish saying; “Who says and what is it to them?”

    In court, the eye witness is notoriously undependable and often completely convinced of the truth of what they saw. I remember in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest Chief saying, and I hope I have this right, “I know it didn’t happen, but it’s still true.”

    The complexities of truth will be a continued challenge as your child’s perceptions and yours change under the relational play and the demands of the external world. I do think protection from some pain and suffering until a child is able to take that on may trump “the truth.”

  • Alex, thank you for this.

    Your words have made me smile today and given me hope.

    “But there’s a wonderful, if subtle, benefit to aiming for honesty in as many circumstances as we can: it motivates us to strive to become all the good things lying helps us pretend we already are.”

  • We realized abruptly that he was intentionally lying to us in order to avoid going to sleep.

    I’d just note that you are imputing motives here that can’t be safely imputed to a small child. To “intentionally lie” he would have to know that what he is telling isn’t true, which presumes a knowledge of truth value in statements, that he knows his bodily sensations well enough to know whether he has to urinate or not (this is something many children don’t learn to do reliably until they are four or five years old), that he has enough of a concept of self to be aware of his actions as manipulable events in discourse, etc.

    A far simpler explanation is that he observed that he gets the results he wants from what he says. Part of the developmental process is that children need to learn the consequences of things that aren’t true in order to distinguish between truth and falsity and so forth. So I think your realization is an imputation of the sort of awareness you might have into your son’s mental state.

    So, in short, I don’t think that the concept of “lying” and “deliberately,” with their accompanying moral and ethical values can be applied in this case. I do realize that you were using it primarily for illustrative purposes but that your judgment about what he was doing probably does not fit his developmental state shows the difficulty in applying concepts such as lying without a very detailed contextual and cultural understanding. There have been excellent cross-cultural investigations into the notion of lying that have found that what counts as a lie is not a neutral, universal judgment, but rather always an embedded evaluation.

  • Alex said:

    Certainly innocent people have been wrongly accused of crimes throughout history. But if so, what would they have to lie about? Really interesting questions. I’d love to hear what others think.

    I’d say your thinking here is reflexive, and my own reflex is to cringe at it. You presume that taking the 5th amounts to lying, and I question that. That kind of bias is what can get innocent people railroaded. One wonders also, what if the punishment is disproportionate to the crime?

    It’s a bit long, but there is an excellent lecture available online from Regent University law professor James Duane that explains how the 5th amendment has been much maligned, and answers why (from an ethical/moral perspective) it can be right to use the protection enshrined therein. If you’re interested, the lecture is available here.

    I too would be interested in other opinions on this…there are many unfortunate examples of injustice in the justice system, and the framers of the Constitution provided us with something that can balance this.

    I’ve wandered off from the original frame of your entry. You made me think, however, which is a good thing. I enjoy your blog.


    B: You made me think as well. I will continue to ponder this…


  • How will he know to tell you now that it is what he does need to do? Does he think you will never believe him?

    Best trick I know is to visit older kids he really loves, and if he wants to sleep in their room (prepare the older kids ahead of time; my nieces pitched right in) he has to go to the potty like a big boy. Worked like a charm, but I delayed trying it at all until they each were around 30 months old.

    Grapes and an M&M on the back of the toilet in a little dish works well also.

    Good luck!

    Melissa: Thanks for the advice. I’m not actually worried about getting him potty trained. He’ll get there eventually. And as another commenter pointed out, I don’t think he lied in quite the same sense as an adult with quite the same awareness. I was really using what he did to illustrate a point.


  • You wrote: “But there’s a wonderful, if subtle, benefit to aiming for honesty in as many circumstances as we can: it motivates us to strive to become all the good things lying helps us pretend we already are.”

    Wow. What a great insight. I’ll carry it with me from now on.

    Wonderful post. Thanks.

  • Your post on lying and the book I am reading, The Difficulty of Being Good: On the Subtle Art of Dharma by Gurcharan Das deal with the issue of our struggle to navigate day to day the ethical and moral dilemmas in life.

    The book is very absorbing because it attempts to answer the question of “Why be good?” He examines dharma or moral well-being. For Hindus dharma is one of the goals of life. The other are kama or desire, artha or wealth/prosperity and moksha or enlightenment.

    Das examines the deceptions and moral/ethical dilemmas of the larger than life heroes and God (Sri Krishna) of the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata. The Mahabharata is about a futile and dreadful war.

    Each time a hero deceives/lies, there is a pause in the action and everyone weighs in, often with contradictory takes on dharma. Dharma is subtle. Das uses these moments of deception to understand how we deceive ourselves at the individual and societal level.

  • Haven’t even finished reading your article (but I will).

    Do your instincts really tell you that this is the way to go with “potty training?” I know it would be convenient to have a “trained” toddler, but it sounds like you’re introducing him to failure at an early age. He’s on the verge of finding out for himself that big boy pants are preferable to wet diapers. (My babies are 26 and 28 and neither wore a diaper to preschool.)

    There’s a lot about Montessori that I respect, but this? Not so much.

    Patricia: Not that this was the point of the post, but frankly I myself feel no particular sense of urgency about toilet training him (in fact, I think it’s less convenient to have a toilet trained toddler—we take him out a lot and it’s much easier to have him go in his diaper than have to find a bathroom somewhere outside). But we certainly aren’t criticizing him or making him feel like a failure in any way. We’re trying to get him to understand what the toilet is for. Toddlers his age are clearly able to get this as 1/3 of his class already does.


  • I’m up fairly early, but I’ve been thinking about the enjoinder to the “brutally honest” and found it troublesome for a few reasons:

    1. It’s called brutally honest for a good reason. Sometimes things that are true are also things that are very hurtful, that brutalize others. Is it ethical to say that which is true but which is also hurtful in an of itself? For example, if my son has spent all day making me something and says “Dad, do you like it?” and I actually think he’s done a horrible job, answering it truthfully does neither him nor me a service. Yet under your point 5 it would be wrong for me not to tell him that I think what he’s done is terrible. Even an evasion of “Wow, I can tell you put a lot of work into this” would count as a lie the way you’ve outlined things. Yet I can see no possible good to deliver what amounts to an emotional sucker punch in the name of always telling the truth. In fact the truth of the matter is that I would appreciate the effort that went into it and the learning, but if I said even that it would be interpreted as telling him he did a terrible job. So now we have three truths (my love of my child, my appreciation of his efforts, and my semi-objective evaluation of the results of those efforts) in conflict. To tell the truth here, as you’ve defined it, does violence to the other truths that I find far more important.

    2. I know some people who are “brutally honest” in the way you think we should aspire to be. These people tend to have few friends and develop reputations as curmudgeons rather than someone to come to for sage advice. I’ve known enough to know that this is a pretty general outcome, not the exception. Reiterating the last point, their commitment to one truth here is in conflict with their commitment to other truths (friendship, honor for honest effort, etc.). When I look at their lives, I see that the outcome of this sort of radical honesty is seldom good for them or for others.

    So why do we lie? Sometimes it’s for the reasons you outline, but other times it is because we are committed to competing truths and to “lie” about one preserves another. If I didn’t “lie” when my wife says “does this make me look fat” (to use a stereotyped example that I’m not implying about my wife), I might quickly find that my wife wouldn’t ask my opinion on things that do matter and that it might have a negative impact on our relationship. Saying “yes, honey, it makes you look like the Goodyear blimp” (assuming it were true), would do service to a trivial and transient truth at the expense of what should be an enduring and much more enduring truth: my love for my wife.

    I’d also point out that, in the case of at least some social lies, both parties are aware of the lie, yet nevertheless appreciate it. If someone asks “does this dress make me look fat?” she is probably aware that it isn’t the most flattering thing in the world. But the intention of the question is not to get a supposedly objective answer, but rather to elicit the reassurance that the other party loves her despite the “true” answer. Saying “no, it makes you look beautiful” is not even understood as a real affirmation that the article of clothing does that, but as an affirmation that “yes, I love you.” Again, what truth is being serviced through the truth.

    Another example that might be relevant: I have a boss who likes to fly off the handle at small provocations. He is also rather poor at communicating what he wants done. Many times he has come to me and asked where I am on project X because it needed to be done yesterday, even though he never ascribed any particular importance to it in the past and the fact is that I’ve not completed it because of all the other things, seemingly more important, he asked to do with strict deadlines. I freely admit that I’ll often tell him it’s almost done because (1) I know I can quickly do it (if that’s true) and (2) if I tell him I’ve not even started the result will be a chewing out that will take longer that it will to just do the job and get it to him. So I’ve lied, but telling the truth in the context of this social relationship has a high negative cost both to him and to me, while telling the lie actually results in the desired outcome (for both of us) much more quickly. Now one might argue I’m taking the easy way out with this sort of lie, but morally it doesn’t bother me even without resorting to some sort of dubious parsing of “almost.” By your standards, this is a completely unacceptable lie on pretty much all fronts, because I’m doing it for all the wrong reasons you outline. However, I would still argue that this is a situation where multiple truths, not just the propositional truth of the statement, are at stake. There are the truths of my boss’ temper, his lack of clarity, my prior knowledge that it will take less time to do the job than to listen to his tirade, etc. So if the goal is to get the work done—also a truth in this context—then telling the “truth” is harmful to it as well.

    I’m certain that you and many others could respond that this is self-justification of the worst sort, that takes a lie and disguises it as necessity and make vice a virtue, and you may be right, as that is certainly a possibility I have considered. At the same time, I think most of us at some point or another engage in exactly this sort of calculus of weighing outcomes, knowledge, feelings, goals, etc., and opt to tell the lie that facilitates the overall goals. Here, again, I find it hard to see what the “truth” would serve in such cases. Other times, however, it may be that I’ve simply been a lazy sloth, in which case I think I would be obligated to tell the truth: “Sorry boss, I spent the last three days playing Internet poker rather than writing the critical report” (I can, honestly, say that that would never be the honest answer to any question asked of me.)

    Maybe I’m a horrible relativist, but I simply don’t see the utility of the radical honesty you feel we should aspire to.

    Fenevad: You raise a number of excellent points. I thought, however, I was careful in my post to articulate that a devotion to telling the truth needs to take a back seat to a commitment to compassionate action. The main thrust of my article was that we far more often tell lies for other reasons. In the example you gave above with your son, I would say that responding by appreciating the hard work he put into what he made for you without explicitly telling him he did a terrible job making it is, in my view, a deception—but a justified one. I think “brutally” was probably a poorly chosen adjective. Perhaps “fearlessly” honest would have been better. It would capture the idea that we shouldn’t lie out of weakness, but that lying when it seems the most compassionate thing to do is probably morally correct. The example you gave about your boss is a tougher one. I certainly see you point, but I’m not really sure what course of action I’d argue there. I didn’t mean to imply a blind devotion to the truth in all circumstances was correct. Thanks for your thoughtful contribution to the dialogue.


  • A friend offered this principle to me, which has been good guidance: Be brutally honest with yourself and tactfully honest with others.

    I enjoyed your article so much. Thank you.

    Jeann: I wish I’d thought of that. “Tactfully” is a far better adjective than “brutally” with regards to the truths we tell others.


  • Another wonderful thought-provoking blog, Alex. Reminded of a part of a conversation heard a few months back between to ladies in a gym. One said to another, “When I asked her to give me her honest opinion, I wasn’t expecting her to be that honest!’ Made me smile at the time….

  • Happy New Year, Alex. Another great writing and a touching story via Rhea about the mother and son at Einstein Bagels. God Bless you both…Tony

    Tony: Happy New Year to you! I’ll likely write about our Einstein Bagel story in a future post.


  • You have already said you used the story about your son merely “to illustrate a point,” Alex, but as usual, I am interested in those events that occur at the earliest stages of our entry into social contexts.

    I wonder if you considered that Cruise wasn’t lying at all, but had merely made the association between being read to and “pee pee in the potty” you had encouraged him to make. Something similar happened recently with my dog. Lately, she has been spending most of her time in an apartment in a city where my husband works instead of her ‘home place” in a suburban neighborhood. Although we give her a long walk at least once a day, we also let her out sometime in the afternoon just to pee. In the city, that means running out to the curb and then right back to the apartment, and she often resisted peeing unless we gave her a longer walk. So I hit on the notion of rewarding her with lavish praise and half a biscuit if she was “good” and peed straightaway. It seemed to work like a charm. Only now, she pushes to “go pee” all the time. Is she “lying?” I don’t think so. I think that like a child, a dog can only connect the dots we give him.

    Although I suspect that lying would occur no matter how we reacted to events like Cruise saying he had to pee when he didn’t, it is tempting to wonder if something in the way we respond to situations like that has the effect of training children to lie. That is, children don’t want their parents to be angry or unhappy, so they say (because saying seems to be as powerful as doing when dealing with adults) what they believe will please their parents. Sometimes what they say is true and sometimes it isn’t, but on the face of it, it’s the words, not the truth value that seems to make a difference in the parents’ response. No wonder the children Bronson and Merryman report on try to work harder at lying better! Language is powerful to the point of probably even seeming magical to little children. If parents saying things can make them so, why not children? Don’t you think that children begin, not by “lying” as we think of it, but as saying what they wish or want to be true and hoping that by saying the words they make it so? And, of course, when we do accuse children of lying it can just lead to a power struggle, because the parents’ words seem immune from this charge when made by children. Much to ponder here….

    And, though this is obviously NOT what your post is about, I have to say I agree with Patricia DiMartino. Too early attempts to toilet train and all-day, everyday school are a couple of aspects of Montessori education that gave me pause. Again, whenever the requirements of a system trump (or, more commonly, obscure) the particular inclinations of individual little humans, I am troubled. My experience suggests that after Maria Montessori came up with her approach, most practitioners spend very little of their time asking themselves, “Could we be missing something, and what might it be?” All children are NOT alike, although we seem to have a bias toward making generic rules for their development.

    So glad to have you back, Alex! I’m looking forward to a new year of your reflections.

    RDP: Thanks, as always, for your comments. There does seem to be a window where you can train toddlers to use the toilet, but we seem to have missed it (Cruise really likes his diapers and resists sitting on the potty for too long). Neither I nor my wife are stressing too much about this. I completely agree you need to listen to your child when applying any technique that, by definition, wants to slot all children into one bucket.


  • Alex, you have dealt with basic definitions of truth and honesty and morality: purity to the point of oversimplification . . .

    I can usually muddle my way thought a situation the likes of which you describe in your examples.

    What I cannot always muddle through, though, are the claims (and claimants) that there is one truth, and (fill in the blank) ______ KNOWS that truth. And the rest of us better listen-up.

    Take, for example, the “authority” of the Catholic Church (and other churches) now and way back in history. Take the era of Henry VIII in England. Henry challenged church “truths” and set up his own church which some would say was equally dogmatic. Henry out-manipulated the ecclesiastical manipulators; even as he had first learned from churchmen to manipulate. (This is a perspective that is set forth in the historical fiction, Wolf Hall, about that era.)

    In this modern era, I believe that this is the reason ecclesiastical sexual abuse is so heinous—that we expected that churchmen would hold onto truth and morality and live by it…and again, as in Henry VIII’s time, we are deceived.

    Seems to me that “truth,” as interpreted by political and religious leaders, may be a whole different animal than the one you describe in your post . . .

    Chris K

    Chris: It certainly is a different animal. I was talking more about trying to convince others of something one knows to be false, rather than trying to convince others to believe what one believes is true.


  • There was one polish philosoper Leszek Kolakowski who wrote a beautiful piece on truth and lies. The end point was:

    It is not so important if we lie or not as both lies and truth can lead to morally unacceptable effects. It is more important to know and understand why and where we lie.

    Leszek Kolakowski in Wiki

  • Like winterborn, I cringe at your suggestion that an innocent person never has a reason to lie. Many years of working in the justice system have made me a devotee of the 5th Amendment.

    I guess I’m a relativist, too. My standard for myself—and I come pretty close to meeting it—is that I do not initiate lies and I do not lie in response to a question that I believe the person asking it has a right to ask me and receive an honest answer. From the IRS: what was your income last year? From my boss: what are you working on? From my spouse: where did you go this afternoon? But, for example, if someone asks me a question that I consider illegitimately invasive, I might say “I’d rather not answer” (the most honest), I might evade and deflect (lying by omission?), or I might just lie (affirmative dishonesty), all depending on the circumstances. Too many people presume the right to know what is none of their business.

    Thanks for a thought provoking post.

    Rob: Well, if two readers find themselves cringing at one of my responses and one of them, at least, has worked in the justice system, it’s time to rethink my position. Other than fear of being unfairly prosecuted (which I agree might be a legitimate reason to take the 5th), can you provide any concrete examples that illustrate when and why an innocent person might want to do so? I’m sure once you do I’ll find them obvious…


  • Happy New Year, Alex!

    OK, I have to pick a little bone with you about lying—primarily because I thought of a particular friend who is of the *brutally honest* department. It’s cost her friendships. She has a need to tell people exactly what she’s thinking, with no frosting, and her message is not always appreciated. Sometimes it’s considered hurtful.

    I think we’re talking about the difference between an opinion vs a fact.

    People who are brutally honest are giving you their opinions—which can be tinged with any number of things, sometimes not always helpful.

    I like a little softness—call it white lies—to counterbalance that rougher, annoyingly opinionated voice in my head!

    Thanks for this post, Alex. I’m glad you’re back from vacation!

    Take Care,

    Jill: I completely agree when we talk about speaking the truth we mean many different things, from speaking the truth about a fact (eg, we did go out Saturday night) to an opinion (eg, no, I don’t like that dress). As I wrote in the post, I don’t view truth telling as something to aspire to as an end in itself but rather as a means toward compassionate action, which is why I agree it’s sometimes best to lie—as long as it’s for the right reasons. I also think there’s a world of difference between having a friend who feels compelled to offer brutal opinions without being asked, and responding with a brutal opinion when directly asked. Even in the latter case, though, I agree we should primarily concern ourselves with what’s most compassionate. I just wonder if we’re really serving a person best by telling them white lies rather than providing honest feedback. A white lie gives a person little chance at self-improvement (when self-improvement is in order). If someone is terribly hurt by hearing someone else doesn’t like their dress, for example, that person might be better served by examining why another’s opinion has such power over them. I do agree the “brutal” part of a truth should always be delivered with compassion and tact, which itself often makes the message more palatable and likely to be of value.


  • Alex, you asked whether I could provide any concrete examples that illustrate when and why an innocent person might want to lie to law enforcement.

    1) A bookkeeper is accused of embezzlement. She is innocent. A police officer asks her, “In all the time you’ve handled money, haven’t you ever been tempted to take some for yourself?” or “In your years as a bookkeeper, have you ever been discharged because of discrepancies in your records?” or “Did you recently take on a lot of debt because of your husband’s medical bills?” A truthful “yes” to any of these is highly inculpatory.

    Has she been “unfairly prosecuted”? No, money was missing and there was circumstantial evidence against her. But telling the truth hurt her.

    2) A man is accused of sexually molesting his 9-year-old stepdaughter, who tells a teacher that he came into her bedroom in the morning, reached under the covers, and fondled her genitals. He is innocent. An officer asks if he has ever been attracted to young girls. His truthful answers reveal that, although all of his sexual activity has been with adults, he regularly buys the magazine “Barely Legal” and likes to have his wife wear girlish lingerie and pigtails. He will most certainly be convicted.

    Was he “unfairly prosecuted”? No, the girl’s outcry provided direct evidence of his guilt. But telling the truth about his sexual tastes bought him a long prison term and a lifetime of being a registered sex offender with multiple restrictions on where he can live and work.

    These are simple examples. One could go in more depth about how one question (easy, straight forward, the truth can’t hurt me) branches and branches to other questions that eventually trap the person question into giving evidence of their guilt (as to some crime, if not the one originally being investigated) or at least evidence that severely damages his or her credibility as a witness.

    In our system of justice, it is the government’s burden to prove a suspect’s guilt, not the suspect’s burden to prove his or her innocence. As James Duane beautifully explained in the lecture winterborn linked to, the “truth” can quite easily lead to conviction of an innocent person. Why should a suspect ever help the government carry its burden of proof?

    What do you think?

    Rob: Of course the danger of telling some of these kinds of lies is that you can be caught and look even more guilty. But I concede the point that fear of having certain truths used against you in our justice system very well may justify telling lies. But on a practical note, even if you were being asked how you felt about something—your own feelings being something no one could presumably argue—how could you be sure you never expressed the truth to someone else who could be brought in to testify against you…? Wouldn’t a legitimate concern be that in attempting to manipulate events by telling lies you might inadvertently paint an even more damaging picture?


  • Speaking to the issue of the fifth amendment:

    Let us suppose for a minute that I am accused of holding someone up at gunpoint and stealing their wallet and a number of eyewitnesses have identified me in the lineup.* Now let us further suppose I am entirely innocent of said action, but I am also a closeted gay and my real alibi is that I was in Las Vegas with my lover at that time, but if I reveal that I am gay I have reason to believe that family members will disown me and I will lose my job. (Let us leave aside the thorny issues of the deception engaged in by gays who fear the consequences of outing.) It might be that I would make the rational decision that the cost of taking the stand (at which point I am obligated to truthfully answer questions about my whereabouts on the night in question) is higher that the risk of incarceration, in which case pleading the fifth makes sense.

    (*Lineups with eyewitnesses have actually been repeatedly demonstrated to be pretty unreliable.)

    This example is, admittedly, a contrived one, but perhaps not as much as it seems. There are many perfectly good reasons why people don’t want others to know their doings, why they might keep silent not out of guilt but out of a desire to keep their most intimate secrets from being dragged before the public gaze. If those reasons have nothing to do with the case at hand or if the defendant has reason to believe that those reasons will be used against him—here, historically, the accusation of homosexuality was often used to smear people before juries regardless of guilt—the best service in defense of the truth may be silence. Thus the fifth can be as much for the defense of the innocent as of the guilty.

    In addition, being compelled to testify abrogates a fundamental right to control one’s words. There are times that this abrogation is appropriate, but the legal principle here respects the autonomy of the individual to decide when and where to disclose his or her actions. Were it not enshrined in law, a prosecutor could bring phony charges against *anyone* in a fishing expedition to force them to provide any sort of information that they might want to keep concealed for whatever reason. (Despite the respect we generally hold the law in, there are far too many unscrupulous prosecutors who have ridden over the corpses of innocents to reach positions of authority, and I don’t doubt that some prosecutors would love the power of being able to compel testimony under threat of perjury about anything they want.)

    The fact that the Founders included the right not to testify in the Bill of Rights along with things like freedom of religion, freedom of expression, etc., shows that they, at least, considered it vital in some way to good governance. It provides a check on the executive and judicial in actions against the individual. Criminal trials are seldom “fair” in the sense that you have the vast apparatus of the state arrayed against an individual who often lacks the resources to fight it. (I don’t see that it could be any other way, but I’m simply observing the vast power differential at play here, a differential that exists regardless of guilt or innocence.) Allowing individuals to refuse to testify, in some small way, addresses that imbalance by preserving for them in extremo some small modicum of power.

    Fenevad: Well reasoned. I wasn’t arguing to abolish the 5th amendment, though. I agree the ability not to reveal truths about oneself needs to be preserved. I only wondered about the motives of an innocent person doing so. Your answer and the answer of other commenters makes clear to me my initial thoughts were ill conceived and perhaps even naive. I am most compelled by your statement that “being compelled to testify abrogates a fundamental right to control one’s words.”


  • I’m sorry if I made it seem as if I thought you were advocating for the abolishment of the fifth. That certainly wasn’t my intention and I didn’t think you were. Instead I merely wanted to address the issue of when an innocent person might wish to remain silent. This was more in response to later discussion that started with Winterborn’s comments. Anyway, this is thought-provoking stuff.

    Fenevad: No harm, no foul. I just wanted to clarify that my only question was just that: when would an innocent person wish to remain silent? I appreciate your contribution to this interesting dialogue.


  • Alex, I bet you never thought writing about a toddler saying “Pee pee on potty” would require you to become a constitutional scholar! 😉

    If our scenario about why wouldn’t an innocent person always tell the truth, you asked “on a practical note” whether lying about something like your private thoughts might not come back to haunt you, for example, because “you couldn’t be sure you never expressed the truth to someone else who could be brought in to testify against you.”

    On the practical side, you are exactly right, and this is why James Duane (like many others) argues so passionately that no one should ever talk to the police. It can only hurt you. I would also point out that the 5th Amendment protects the right to *remain silent* not to lie to the police—that is usually a crime itself. Of course we all know that “I’d rather not answer” screams “I’d hiding something—keep looking!” I would suggest that is one reason why people lie to the police (or any nosy inquisitor) rather than exercising their right to remain silent.

    But, I was responding to an earlier question that was abstract and not practical—whether we should (as a matter of ethics/morality) always aim for honesty. The practical aspect of lying and ethical questions are very different to me.

    I think you triggered the segue into the 5th Amendment with your statement at the outset that “Lying by omission (by simply not admitting something) may seem less heinous than speaking an untruth directly, but the intent to deceive is the same.” In lawyer-speak, that’s over-broad. I think your original piece and most of the comments all emphasize that one’s intent always matters. I agree that if one lies for any of the reasons in your 5-point list, it will generally interfere with the goal of bettering oneself as a person.

    Rob: It has been indeed fascinating for me to watch a connection evolve between potty training an almost two year old and the U.S. Constitution! In any event, your last sentence captures the reason I wrote the post, so I’m glad that, at least, came across. Thanks for contributing to such an interesting discussion.


  • In reply to Fenevad’s earlier post, in which he used the example of his wife asking him if a dress made her look fat:

    Fenevad, your love and compassion for your wife are clearly evident, and it’s true that in some cases the question “Does this make me look fat?” = “Do you love me enough to tell me this looks good on me even when it doesn’t?” But not always. For me, at least, when I ask the question “Does this make me look fat?” I really do want an honest answer. If it’s not flattering, I will take off the dress and wear something else instead…simple as that. (You are right about not using the Goodyear blimp as a point of comparison, though!)

  • What about people who avoid an issue all together? Like I will call or email my son about something and I never hear back from him. I know he does that so he doesn’t have to face the truth about what he did or didn’t do.

    I did confront him recently about when he asked for “a loan” of like $200 to get by on until he gets paid. He says he’ll put a check in the mail that day for it, but he never does. Part of the problem is I know I haven’t held him accountable. So the last time he asked, I told him I wondered where all his checks were that he supposedly had sent me. He paused and then I said I guess you didn’t send them. Then I said what if I said I was going to put the money in your account and then I didn’t, how would that make you feel? He said bad. So I told him I felt bad and I wasn’t going to send him any more extra money.

  • Re: The 5th Amendment against self-incrimination. This is how I see it. We’ve made a policy decision in this (and other) countries that it’s important enough to protect the rights of the innocent that if the guilty are sometimes able to take advantage of those protections, so be it. It’s the same with other amendments in the Bill of Rights; for example, the right against unreasonable search and seizure. In order to protect me (an innocent) from having the police barge into my house in the middle of the night whenever they want to, unless there are special circumstances (e.g. they’re in hot pursuit of a suspect), we require them to have a warrant. (A law that would read, “The police can enter any house without a warrant if a guilty person resides there” makes no sense—that’s why the law covers both the innocent and the guilty.) We know this means that sometimes the guilty will be able to use these provisions to escape punishment for their crimes, but we believe it’s worth it so that law-abiding citizens aren’t subject to unwarranted intrusions from the government.

  • I’m with Winterborn et al. There are many reasons why individuals want to protect their private lives from they eyes of the government. A simpler example might be the matter of library records. Most public libraries automatically delete records of patrons checking out specific books once the book is returned. Libraries do keep statistics, but remove names from the data. This is to prevent the police from getting your library records, which they may only obtain with a warrant. If you are a normal innocent person than a logical conclusion would be that it would be perfectly alright for the police to see your library records. You have nothing to hide, right? And maybe you don’t. But maybe the government doesn’t need to know what books you choose to read.

    Anyway, my point (like Rob’s) is that being honest to the government is a whole different ball of wax from being honest to your spouse.

    I also work on being honest with my spouse because I believe that it is the foundation of our relationship. But at the same time telling my spouse Everything is not necessary, compassionate, or realistic. Every day I “lie by omission” when I don’t tell him about my every thought and action. The standard that I try to live to is that if it is important to me, then I should share it with my spouse.

    As for children…I recall when I was about 6 years old, my mom read the Sunday paper and then, in tidying up the house, tossed it out before I could read the comics. I threw a fit. How dare she! She immediately told me that every year the paper prints the same comics, so I would just have to wait a year to see the same comics again. I was relieved to hear this and calmed down. I’ve often thought of writing a book called, “Lies my mother told me, for my own good.”

    Mary Ellen: I didn’t mean to imply simply not speaking every thought in your head was to lie by omission. I meant rather we lie by omission when directly asked about something and we answer with a half-truth. And I’m a bit unclear how your mother’s lying about the comics was for your own good. You don’t say why she actually threw them out before you could read them, but the lie you describe her telling strikes me as lying to protect herself from your wrath.


  • Being honest all the time can be really tough. People do appreciate it, but a lot of people don’t take to it well. I think you give people more credit then you should. A lot of people’s egos are very fragile when it comes to certain things, and sometimes a little lie or “white Lie” can go a long way. I’m not writing about being brutally honest, I’m writing about the questions people ask when they need positive enforcement, such as the question “Do I look fat?” Most people don’t want to hear, “Yes, you do,” but if they are fat and they are asking, what are you supposed to say? If it is a friend or loved one, and they are not heavy to the point that they may have health related issues, chances are you are better off saying “no” or “you could stand to lose a few pounds.” That is just one example but I believe there are plenty of others.

    People ask questions that put others in awkward positions all the time if they answer honestly. Being honest is great, but I think in the real world sometimes it’s better to avoid hurting that person and just tell a “white lie.” You lose nothing by doing so.

    Ariel: On the other hand, if you’re talking to someone you do care about and their ego is fragile, isn’t it more compassionate to be tactfully (rather than brutally) honest to give them a chance to reflect on their fragility and begin to strengthen their ego? Certainly they may not even be interested in doing such work. But isn’t telling a white lie a little bit like enabling an alcoholic to keep drinking? Which really is the more compassionate route to take? I grant sometimes it very well may be the white lie, but I wonder how often telling a white lie says more about the (lack of) courage of the person telling it than it does the fragility of the person hearing it.


  • Well, Alex! You hit a nerve didn’t you? What a terrific response to your post…good challenging thought-provoking comments to go along with a good challenging thought-provoking post. To me, this is the best parts of blogging.

    I actually wrote a piece on honesty earlier in the week. It was one of those pieces that came out of anger and heavy-handed typing, if you know what I mean. It made me actually stop and wonder why I make some people uncomfortable when I’m honest. Feelings are something I’m personally comfortable sharing. Many others are not. Consequently, there have been times when I expressed myself too much for another person to handle. I can go “deep” fast and it is my blindness to others reactions that gets me in trouble. Most don’t like to go “deep” fast into the realm of feelings.

    I’ve also looked at the other side of this…the lying. It’s part of my role counseling and assessing others. Underlying all lies are feelings…the biggies being shame, guilt, fear, love, compassion, anger, desire…these are the reasons “why” we lie. The need for control/empowerment, even if it is built on a lie, motivates us to manipulate a situation…even if it is to avoid going to bed.

    Great post!!!

    PS. I loved your post last week, and went back and read your PTSD post. I have shared it with a few people in my life whom I thought would benefit from your experience and thoughts on it. Thank you for sharing and writing so candidly. Shine on, Alex!

    Dana: Thanks so much for the encouragement. This post sure did provoke some intense responses. I guess I’m glad it made people think.


  • I’ve been lurking to read the comments in this thread since my last…a very interesting dialogue.

    Alex, I hope that the intense responses were not in any way discouraging to you—making people think is a skill that should not be undervalued, and one that every writer should aspire to.


    B: I don’t find intense responses discouraging at all (as long as the response is also respectful). I learn more from people who disagree with me than from those who don’t. Helps me refine my thinking. Thank you, though, for such a supportive comment. That’s always appreciated.


  • Lack of courage? Courage has nothing to do with it. You are totally missing the point. Many people have issues that no matter what you do or say, their issues will remain. Not everything is fixable, and we have to pick and choose our battles.

    Ariel: At the risk of beating a dead horse: I certainly agree we have to pick and choose our battles and that sometimes it’s more compassionate to tell a white lie than the truth. But I believe in the inexhaustible possibility of people to grow and change. I’ve seen people I never would have imagined changing doing just that, which has taught me never to assume I know another person’s limits or what they might be able to do in the future. Not that my opinion is necessarily going to be right or even help another person in the way I intend, but to withhold it out of worry over damaging a person’s ego in situations where speaking it seems to me more compassionate would, in my case at least, be an act motivated out of fear of being disliked.


  • I prefer the truth even if it’s a little more brutal sometimes. I feel I can handle it and I’m beyond exhausted with people who tell you what they think you want to hear because they’re people pleasers or they assume your so fragile you can’t handle the truth. True friendship and relationships don’t walk on egg shells. I believe it’s all in the delivery and one can master the art of tactfully sharing the truth with their friend or loved one. I have to agree with Alex; depending on the situation, you’re really not doing the party any good by telling them something to cushion the truth; by saying one must chose their battles, you’re assuming telling someone the truth is going to result in a battle and therefore that holds you back. I don’t think it ever has to become a battle if you don’t turn it into one. If you’re sincere and and are speaking from your heart you can’t go wrong even if the person has a strong reaction at first. As for the “Does this make me look fat” dilemma, I think if the person is in a place to ask such a bold direct question with a painful description, they already know the truth. Once again a tactful delivery such as, “Wear the black dress; black makes everyone look thinner” would work. LOL

    I can’t believe how an example of little Cruise turned into a fifth amendment topic at one point. LOL That little guy has a lot of power.

  • Alex and Mary,

    I think you both must be friends with a lot of incredibly strong and rational people. The world I know exists with people whose ego’s are bullet proof and whose ego’s are also as brittle as an egg shell. In dealing with the latter group specifically, it isn’t about a “fear of being disliked or acts of courage.” It is about being a compassionate person. And sometimes that compassion includes walking around loaded questions, regardless of how sincere you think you might be. I believe that is why we have the study of psychology actually. Because the human mind isn’t so simple or so black and white.

  • Interesting post, as usual, Alex.

    As I read through it, though, I could not help but remember my favorite sonnet by William Shakespeare.

    When my love swears that she is made of truth

    I do believe her, though I know she lies,

    That she might think me some untutor’d youth,

    Unlearned in the world’s false subtleties.

    Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young,

    Although she knows my days are past the best,

    Simply I credit her false speaking tongue:

    On both sides thus is simple truth suppress’d.

    But wherefore says she not she is unjust?

    And wherefore say not I that I am old?

    O, love’s best habit is in seeming trust,

    And age in love loves not to have years told:

    Therefore I lie with her and she with me,

    And in our faults by lies we flatter’d be.

    Best regards,


  • I never thought that any of my 5 children lied when they were very young. (That comes when they’re teenagers.) In the best way they could, my intelligent young children crafted means to persuade us. Simply saying, “I don’t want to go to bed” wouldn’t get the job done. My take is that your child wasn’t lying. He was wanting to have more interaction with you and not wanting to go to bed. He was telling you, “Let’s play the pee pee game some more.”

  • “I think you both must be friends with a lot of incredibly strong and rational people.”

    No, not exactly, Ariel. It’s been quit the opposite and is what motivated me to be more honest with those people. I guess after having encountered all sorts of people with all kinds of egos in my life I’ve discovered what works best for me and all in the end is that I would rather tell a thousand truths and draw a thousand tears, than a lie, and see a thousand forged smiles; but that’s just my truth that has worked much deeper friendships and relationships in my life.

  • I have a question so if anyone can give me their opinion that would be great, because I am suffering so bad and its tearing me apart. I need to know that I’m not the only one who thinks like I do. Because I don’t think I deserve to be thrown out of someone’s life just because I lied and the reason for the lie is fear, since the person to whom I lied has a hard time accepting the truth. I was scared of rejection and disappointment and not measuring up to the standards.

    The question: If you love someone, and they lie to you (no matter what the lie, even small) can you possibly throw them out of your life because you only tolerate the truth and you think if someone lied once they will lie to you more and you can not trust them? Or is it just pride or something else? Can such a person truly love?

    See the problem is that the love of my life broke up with me today, because I lied to him on a question that he purposely asked and knew the answer to. I apparently had told him the truth before, but I forgot that, and to avoid being judged and feeling scared that if he knew the truth he’d get rid of me, I lied. The lie is not even that bad, but knowing him so intolerable of anything I freaked out and lied. In any case I lost…because he will never trust me or be with me.

    Why I was so scared is due to this: I had met him last March, and we stared dating. He was perfect at first, not controlling, tolerable of me having friends who are male, going out with girlfriends to a club, wearing stylish clothes, etc. Then quickly he started to change and had me get rid of all my guy and girl friends, wear clothes that cannot show my cleavage, or shorts or skirts, and having no more than 2 alcoholic beverages such as beer or a shot even in a restaurant. These are just examples but hopefully you get the idea. Then in June I went to visit my best friend in San Diego and he broke up with me because he didn’t trust me or something, and felt that my girlfriend would persuade me to break the rules such as going out, or having more than two drinks. Anyways, I was torn during that vacation…but I did meet great people who were friends of my best friend. It was an awesome friendly group consisting of both males and females. We did go out, and I tried to enjoy myself and get over the pain. However, when I got back home…he and I made up.

    Then it all began: he was questioning me on everything I did. I was very good, I didn’t hook up with anyone; all I did was hang out with that group of people. But to him that was pain because he said he didn’t even go out during those two weeks while I was having “fun.” So he made me feel soooo bad about myself and ashamed for something I feel I don’t deserve to be. I didn’t do anything bad, but to him going out to the pool with my best friend and two guy friends is like cheating. That is what I lied to him about today…I told him I didn’t go to the pool with anyone other than girls during my stay in San Diego. I was scared of the truth because I thought I never told him that, but apparently I did (he forgave me then). I guess I just freaked because he would kill me if I ever did that in the future (pool with someone other than females).

    I am sooo scared of him, and don’t want to lie, but I feel that I am not perfect or good enough for him. So by doing that tonight he broke up with me….because he cannot trust me and that even simple lie is cheating, but the irony is I think that he will never trust anyone other than himself. If you cannot tolerate simple things, how do you expect people to tell you the truth. Please someone tell me I’m not crazy, because I keep telling myself it’s him, he has problems, but my heart is hurting because I should have told the truth an I regret it.

    Val: Presuming what you’ve reported here is accurate (we aren’t getting your boyfriend’s perspective here), in my view, your boyfriend was making unreasonable demands on you I suspect based on his own insecurities. A healthy relationship that has a chance to last is one in which each partner trusts the other. Your boyfriend clearly didn’t trust you to remain faithful so tried to prevent you from cheating on him by imposing unreasonable rules which you agreed to accept. You felt the impulse to lie because he was essentially blackmailing you: if you didn’t follow his rules, he would withdraw his trust. Yet nothing you describe doing or wanting to do would violate the trust of a reasonable, confident person. Emotions run high in early life loves (my sense is you’re both relatively young) and insecurity is common. Frankly, it sounds as if your boyfriend has some growing to do before he’s ready to participate in a mature relationship. I’m so sorry for your heartbreak—but at the same time I get the sense a part of you was suffering in having to follow your boyfriend’s rules and is glad to be rid of them (if not him). Please always continue to work to improve yourself in general, to remain worthy of trust, so that you can find another person who will trust you without imposing unreasonable rules in an attempt to control you. That way, at least, you won’t feel the same temptation to lie. But even in this circumstance, had you told the truth, or had you not even violated his rules, I strongly suspect eventually he would have found some other reason to withdraw his trust and break up with you.


  • Val, What Alex said is right on target. I hope you’re getting out or out of the relationship. It was a situation that put you in a state of fear (but you did agree to) and walking on egg shells when you clearly weren’t doing anything to violate his trust. Try to be happy he has moved on so you can do the same; try to just work on your self-esteem so you realize this isn’t a mature way to be in a loving relationship. You deserve a healthy bond with someone you feel comfortable around. Keep us posted.

  • Val,
    Anonymous post…why anonymous?…this guy hasn’t moved on…he sounds like a guy who will cause trouble for you (and I wouldn’t want to be on this guy’s radar at all). You know when he’ll cause trouble? The second he realizes that you’ve moved on. Brace yourself and listen to the doctor on this one…work to improve your self-esteem. When you do this, you’ll find yourself feeling better about yourself and able to enjoy what your truly like and that perfect guy that you thought couldn’t be replaced will be.

  • Val,

    Once a control freak always a control freak. You better get moving while you still can, before the mental control/abuse turns into physical control/abuse. My aunt went through this and it wasn’t pretty.

    Run for the hills.

  • It’s nice to think that people who don’t lie would become these invaluable sources of honesty when we need it but sadly most people want to be lied to. I am one of the most honest people you could ever meet and it hasn’t done me one bit of good other than showing me who my real friends are; however it’s because of that honesty that I currently have no friends. People like it at first. They are refreshed by the fact that I am an open book and will answer any question they throw at me with complete utter and perhaps frightening or hilariously funny honesty. However in the end when they do something horrible to me and I tell them exactly how they made me feel it would seem they cannot handle the honesty and would prefer if I said it was alright, that I forgive them, that it really didn’t bother me all that much. I wish I could lie more often and perhaps have some people around to hang out with, but it seems honesty like mine is not rewarded and therefore I wouldn’t encourage it because then you’ll just have a bunch of honest people like me who can’t keep a friend to save their soul. The problem stems from there not being enough honest people to begin with. If my friends in the past had been as honest as me we’d never be in this situation because it’s the lies and betrayal that always end up hurting me. Sadly I’m so honest even after all this time I never expect the betrayal until it happens and then I’m like why did I let that happen again?