Imagine, for a moment, attempting to get through a day in which everyone told the truth to you, and you reciprocated. Over breakfast you ask your partner what he’s looking at on his phone. “Pictures of my ex-girlfriend,’ he replies. ‘I still love her.’ Having dumped a mug of hot coffee in his lap you set off for work, and bump into a friend who has recently given birth. ‘Isn’t he beautiful?’ asks your friend, as you peer into the pram. Compelled to respond truthfully, you say, ‘No. He look likes the lovechild of Eric Pickles and Andrew Marr.’ Your friend pushes off, never to speak to you again.
At the office, you attend your team’s weekly status meeting. ‘How are you, Norman?’ you ask your colleague as he takes the seat next to yours. Rather than say ‘I’m fine, thanks,’ Norman launches into a long and detailed description of his marriage problems. The boss arrives and asks why the deadline you’ve been working to has been missed by two weeks. You explain that an unusual combination of great weather, must-see sporting events and your own inherent laziness has prevented the project from moving forward. The boss nods, and says he has already made enquiries with HR about the possibility of firing you.
In the evening you go for a drink with an old friend. She tells you that you’ve put on a lot of weight recently and you tell her that last summer her husband confessed to you that he had a one-night stand with a male colleague while on a business trip to Hamburg. As the evening reaches its tear-stained end, you look at your watch. It’s gone midnight: the day of truth is over. “Well, I must be going.” you say to your friend. “It’s been wonderful to see you.”
We hate liars, and lying. “Liar” is one of the worst insults you can hurl at a person. For good reason too: lies can corrode trust and destroy relationships. But, alone amongst the major ethical transgressions, lying is something all of us practice, and on a daily basis. The psychologist Bella De Paulo found that people tell, on average, 1.5 lies a day. Another researcher established that two people will tell three lies within ten minutes of meeting each other. We hate thieves and murderers too – but at least most of us can say, hand on heart, that we don’t steal things or kill people, most weeks at least.
After half a million years of human conversation, we’re not really any closer to establishing whether it’s ever OK to lie to each other. But perhaps we can start by investigating why we need to lie in the first place.
Ian Leslie is a journalist and author who has examined deeply our mixed-up relationship with lying in his book ‘Born Liars. Why We Can’t Live Without Deceit’ (Quercus, 2011). His previous book, ‘To Be President’ (Politicos, 2008), was described by Adam Boulton as ‘brilliantly capturing the drama and emotion of Obama’s successful run for the White House’ and was extracted by Granta. He regularly appears as an analyst of American politics on Sky and the BBC. He has written about politics, culture, marketing, and psychology for Prospect, the Guardian and The Times.