“Everybody lies.” The lead character on the popular TV drama House complained of this every week. Gregory House was a gifted physician and a brilliant diagnostician. But he hated having to sift through his patients’ endless inadvertent misrepresentations, significant omissions, and deliberate distortions to get to the bottom of their illnesses. House is the quintessential cynic. But is he right? Does everybody lie? Is lying the new epidemic?
The Scope of the Problem
Lying seems not only more prevalent but also increasingly accepted these days. Some of us might not so readily accept all this lying. But most of us have certainly come to expect it. Researcher Charles F. Bond and his colleagues at Texas Christian University have studied this. Most Americans believe they have a better than average chance of getting away with lying. And that’s largely because of how common lying is. It’s also because we’ve become accustomed, and, therefore, desensitized to it. We know almost anyone will lie to us in one way or another – even for seemingly inconsequential reasons.
The Social Impact of Lying
In Tangled Webs, Pulitzer Prize winner James B. Stewart speaks to the social impact of lying. He discusses some of the biggest lies told and the high-profile figures who uttered them. These lies were the undoing of once well-respected leaders like “Scooter” Libby and Barry Bonds. He also examines the lies that brought down Martha Stewart and Bernie Madoff. And he suggests a significant change has occurred in our culture. Not long ago, when otherwise decent people got caught doing wrong, they responded differently. They were more likely to “fess-up,” face the music, and correct course. Their conscience bothered them enough to do so. But these days even our cultural role models try to evade responsibility and lie about their missteps. And they lie about them even when those missteps are plain for all to see.
Deception and Manipulation
Few these days seem willing to honestly self-reckon. That’s because for all too many, it’s all about image and what researchers call “impression management.” Deception (i.e. lying) is always involved in impression managment (i.e. manipulation). And it’s at the root of most character disturbance. Disturbed characters habitually lie. One lie inevitably begets another when someone’s feverishly trying to cover their tracks. Such was the case with Watergate, which brought down the Nixon presidency. And lying (by crafty word parsing, disortion, and omission) almost ended the presidency of Bill Clinton.
The High Cost of Lying
Society has become much more fractured and adversarial. Stewart suggests this is one reason loyalty seems to have become more important than honesty. “C.Y.A.” and “Don’t rat out your buddies!” are the unwritten and unspoken axioms from our corporate boardrooms to our police departments. But society has definitely lost something when a person can swear before God, a judge, and a jury to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth while full intending to conceal it.
What exactly have we lost? Some might say it’s our innocence or idealized image of justice. Others might say it’s any sense of shame. Still others might say it’s our moral compass. It could even be a clear sense of decency, dignity, and integrity. But whatever it is, it’s pretty much gone. And it’s gone because so many among us are so stubbornly unwilling to reckon with the truth. It’s also because our society has become too desensitized to and expecting of such behavior. Too many aspects of our culture “enable” all this lying. And tragically, sometimes, our culture even rewards it.
Lying Destroys Relationships
Lying destroys relationships. It breaks the crucial bond of trust essential to a relationship’s survival. When someone lies – especially when they do so repeatedly – they inevitably inflict injury. They can do great damage to their marriage, working partnerships, or other intimate relationships. They do damage that’s often extremely hard, if not impossible to repair.
Toxic relationship survivors know all too well the damaging effect of lying. And when they finally catch their character disturbed partner doing wrong but then that partner acts convincingly innocent, they experience the “gaslighting” effect. That makes them feel both “crazy” and inexplicably guilty themselves. And when truth finally outs and they realize how egregiously they’ve been bamboozled, used, and abused, it can ignite an emotional firestorm. Victims of such manipulation often need years (and a lot of good emotional support) to get over the anger, hurt, and sense of betrayal. That’s the unfortunate result of being “conned” so greatly and for so long.
There are many ways to lie. And disturbed characters are so accomplished at it that they’ve raised lying to a near art form. In next week’s article I’ll be discussing the artful ways manipulators and other disturbed characters lie. And in the weeks following, I’ll be discussing the seemingly senseless and unnecessary lying some folks do that many refer to as “pathological lying.”
Some Important Updates:
Look for a special Independence Day edition of Character Matters this Sunday evening at 7 PM EDT. You can join the discussion for this live program by calling (718) 717-8296. And you can treat yourself to a rendition of my patriotic Anthem for the Millennium by visiting the America, My Home! page.
Next week I’ll be doing professional training in western New York state. Check the “Workshops and Seminars” page here on the blog or the speakers information page on the Cross Country Education website for details.
For more information on today’s topic, check out my books Character Disturbance, In Sheep’s Clothing, The Judas Syndrome, and How Did We End Up Here?. You might also want to peruse the articles: The Art of the Lie and Lying – Another Look at this Character Defect .
And for an in-depth discussion of this “fourth commandment” and all of the “10 Commandments” of sound character development, look for my new book with Dr. Kathy Armistead The Ten Commandments of Character: How to Lead a Significant Life at the end of summer.