Earlier this year, Essex University’s Centre for the Study of Integrity released research that showed people in Britain are more dishonest than they were a decade ago. The Centre repeated a study first done in 2000 as part of a ‘large-scale study of citizenship’ and found that Britons in 2012 are more likely to tolerate lying, having an affair, and even drink-driving, than they were in 2000.
The broad questions of whether we’re becoming more dishonest, and whether it is ever right to lie? were posed to me in an interview recently by Paul Ross and Gaby Roslin on BBC London’s Breakfast Show. The team behind the show had collected some vox pops for the feature, including from a man who said he lies to his wife “because she’s the one who asks the most questions ” (she might be asking a few more if she heard the piece!). Another made the point that you “have to be clever to lie, or you get found out.” On a very serious note, there was an extremely moving story told on the programme about a young child with a terminal illness, whose parents kept the truth of his situation from him, to allow him to live his last days without fear. Of course this is a very specific example of when it is absolutely right to withhold the truth.
The reason behind the Essex research, though, is to establish the level of integrity within our society, which can have a profound impact on the way that society operates and binds together. In a summary of the Essex research, Professor Paul Whiteley, the author of the study, is quoted as saying: “If social capital is low, and people are suspicious and don’t work together, those communities have worse health, worse educational performance, they are less happy and they are less economically developed and entrepreneurial.”
So understanding why we lie, and whether it is ever right to lie, is important for our society. It is the consequence of a lie that matters. A not-so-serious occasional ‘mistruth’ (“I’m late for work because the buses were running late”) may have very little consequence, for example, and be relatively harmless.
In my experience, people tell bigger lies for all sorts reasons: to avoid being judged or punished; because they feel guilt or shame; to better their own situation (for example, inventing something on a CV to move up the career ladder); to avoid confrontation (for example to cover an affair); or just out of habit.
But the most persistent or compulsive liars will often lie because they feel ashamed of the truth. They hide behind a web of stories that mask their true feelings, to the point that they suppress any awareness of what the truth really is. They believe their own tales, which become a very real world. It can be very difficult to break these stories down, without that world crumbling.
The research also found that young people are more likely to lie than older people, and I was asked in the interview if this is a sign of a decline in society’s values. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. Young people are less developed psychologically and emotionally, and may not realise the consequences of their behaviour. They may want to be liked, or be easily influenced and want to impress their peers. As we grow older, we (mostly) learn from our experiences, and understand the consequences of our actions better than we did when we were young.
Have you ever told a lie? Do you think we’re becoming more dishonest? I’d love to hear from you.