Dr. Val FarmerDr.Val
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

The Truth Is Hard To Tell

July 24, 2000

In romance, deception is almost the name of the game.

The stereotype liar is believed to be someone who boldly and brazenly uses lies to gain an advantage at someone else's expense. Lies told with such cold and calculated intent can shatter the innocent as much as a blow from a sledgehammer.

But there are lies and then there are lies. As far as lies go, lies told to manipulate and exploit are a distinct minority. Perhaps as few as one lie in a hundred meets this category, according to Bella DePaulo.

DePaulo knows liars. As a psychologist at the University of Virginia, she has explored the dynamics of deceit. She has tried to answer why people lie and to whom are lies told.

Protect or enhance the self. Common lies, according to DePaulo's findings, are the 50 percent of lies that are told for psychological purposes, either to protect or enhance the self. These are self-centered lies - lies designed to avoid such psychic unpleasantries as embarrassment, disapproval, worry, or loss of face. Lies are told to avoid hurt and conflict. Still other lies are told as a way of presenting the self in a favorable light.


Other-centered lies. Another 30 percent of lies are what could be termed "other-centered" lies. These lies are told for the same reasons as the self-centered lies. The only difference is that these lies are told to protect others. These "altruistic" lies are told for the sake of the other person, to spare a vulnerable party from the painful truth, to keep the peace, and an assortment of other worthy reasons.

Lying as the right thing to do involves individuals with high-esteem and excellent interpersonal skills who often tell lies to be nice, especially to people they like. Which is it - a superior use of tact and diplomacy or is it dishonesty and deceit?

In reality, a less than sincere expression, a judicious omission of the truth, or a slight embellishment of the facts may actually be a kind, loving action to take.

White lies, conversation that is less than straight-forward, may be a needed social glue to prevent unnecessary hurt and conflict.

Too nice. Even so, there are problems with being too nice. Telling the truth fosters intimacy and friendship. People need honest feedback about themselves and their behavior.

When DePaulo arranged one of her experiments to encourage telling the truth as valuable and helpful feedback, one-fourth of the participants still refrained from stating their true opinions. It is easy to lie when the truth hurts.

Liars feel guilty. Even innocuous lies and altruistic lies leave a twinge of guilt and distress. Liars are not coldhearted, mean or guiltless. When lies are told for good reasons, they still take an emotional toll.

Who tell lies? DePaulo found that with few exceptions, most everyone stretches the truth from time to time. It is not a "us and them" proposition. It is a question of how many, when and the kinds of lies we tell.

However, some people do tell more lies than others. DePaulo found that insecure, timid people who are lacking in self-confidence are less truthful. They are too eager to please. They gear their remarks to what they think others want to hear. Fear of being judged or rejected leads to a defensive protection of self by covering up true feelings or opinions.

Who do insecure people tell their lies to? Most likely it is to other insecure people like themselves. Why is that? DePaulo found that just like some people are prone to lie, others seem to invite lies being told to them.

It is as if their vulnerability is so transparent that it is easier to lie to them than to tell the truth. The truth is hard to tell for fear that insecure people might be blown away by even modest puffs of criticism.

Lies in close relationships. Most lies are told to people we know slightly. Close relationships thrive on truth, honesty and trust. Truth and intimacy go together. It stands to reason that marriage should be a haven for truthfulness.

In fact, DePaulo found that indeed fewer lies are told to marriage partners. The relationships that had the fewest lies were between best friends.

People don't lie frivolously to people they care about. These relationships are deeper and more trusting because of honest communication. Small lies told to people we care about take away from intimacy.

Good relationships depend on a graceful acceptance of some differences and an honest confrontation of others.

Serious lies. DePaulo studies serious lies, lies that violated deep trust and commitment. Two-thirds of these lies are told to loved ones - parents, spouses, romantic partners, and best friends - the people we care about.

Forty percent of the people surveyed in DePaulo's study remembered the most serious lies ever told them were told in the context of courtship and dating. In romance, deception is almost the name of the game. In marriage, one-fourth of the serious lies told were told to hide an affair.

When do people lie? When the truth hurts, either to ourselves or others, we lie the most. The truth is hard to tell.