Two years ago, I started being honest. Actually, that’s a lie. I merely started noticing when I wasn’t being honest — and more important, why. I wrote about it in an essay called “How Honesty Could Make You Happier,” which documented what I learned from keeping an honesty journal.
Once I realized that personal honesty was a way to help lift the gloom of what I saw as an increasingly dishonest world, it spurred me to keep learning more about why we lie, and how we can stop doing it. I ended up writing a book about it, “Would I Lie to You? The Amazing Power of Being Honest in a World That Lies.”
As we stare down a new decade that is likely to be no more honest than the one we just wrapped, I offer these six truths about honesty to help me — and I hope you — do better into 2020 and beyond.
1. What we say about deception and what we believe about deception often don’t match.
Research has found that about 25 percent of the lies we tell are prosocial — meaning they are lies we tell to benefit others. For example, imagine telling a co-worker who needs a confidence boost right before a presentation, “I know you’ll do great!” even when you have your doubts. That’s a prosocial lie.
Emma Levine, an assistant professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business who conducts research on why we lie, says that understanding the intentions of the deceiver often informs how we regard the deception. She has found that in many cases, when it comes to building trust, benevolence can be more important than honesty. We are often willing to trust people who lie as long as we think they were motivated by benevolent intentions.
Despite the positive impact of prosocial lying, we still tend to talk about deception only in negative ways. “We think: lying bad, honesty good, painting the black-and-white picture. But in any specific case, we are far more comfortable with lying than we say we are,” Dr. Levine says. If we can get past what we say about honesty (clichés like “honesty is the best policy”) and focus on how we feel, we start to realize that not only are we telling trust-building prosocial lies, we’re also relying on people to tell us prosocial lies. We just don’t want to talk about it.
2. Your honesty struggles are a great opportunity to learn about yourself.
Working on honesty is a chance to gain insight into yourself, including your most intimate relationships.
I told a man who had joined my lap lane at the pool without getting my attention and alerting me first that I had once done the same thing (I hadn’t) when I saw how stupid he felt when he realized he had breached swimmers’ etiquette. I learned that I use prosocial lying to help mitigate others’ embarrassment.
But I also noticed times when I mistook benevolence for selfishness, times when my motive was all about avoiding a difficult, but necessary, conversation. I struggled greatly to be honest with my husband about how I had developed intense feelings for another man. Once I finally spilled the truth, it opened up a conversation about our very different expectations of marriage — mine turned out to be very high, even though I hadn’t fully acknowledged it. We navigated our way around unhelpful emotions like blame and found each other again, ultimately coming out stronger. But I never would have understood who I was inside my marriage without the conversations my honesty forced.
3. We have to be more honest with children than ever before.
Research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology showed that when adults don’t give children the whole truth, children work to fill in the gaps — and are then less likely to trust the adult. Victoria Talwar, a psychology professor at McGill University, has found that as children grow, they develop increasing confusion around truth and lies, especially when parents tell them lying is wrong, but then proceed to lie in front of them.
There’s also this: Telling kids the difficult or awkward truth is a great chance to impart values. I learned this from the sex educator Amy Lang, author of “Birds + Bees + Your Kids.” So when my very curious middle-schooler asked me if a certain slang term meant oral sex, instead of changing the topic or squirming out of answering, I was able to say, “Yes, and … oral sex is a way that people like to be sexual without worrying about getting pregnant. It’s part of a healthy sex life. But it’s definitely not for kids. It’s for later.”
With so much information at our kids’ disposal — my kids are now 11 and 9 and fully understand how to use the internet — it’s absolutely not the time to abdicate on talking about the uncomfortable truths, whether it’s sex and consent, racism, gun violence or suicide. Changing the topic is no longer an option for me as a parent in 2020.
4. We lie at work to protect our identity.
Keith Leavitt, an ethics researcher and associate professor at Oregon State University, has found that workplace lies are often related to protecting our identity, whether we define ourselves through our achievements, through the roles in which we serve others, or through belonging to a group. “We tend to tell three kinds of lies at work: lies that protect my own accomplishment, lies that protect someone I’m close to, and lies that protect my company,” Dr. Leavitt says.
When people feel pigeonholed by the way they define themselves — to the point that it’s the only way they can see themselves — they often use deception to double down on that identity. Elizabeth Holmes, the disgraced founder of Theranos, is an extreme example; a less serious example might be the professor who quickly changes the station to NPR before a colleague gets into the car. The challenge, Dr. Leavitt says, is to be able to pivot to another identity when you feel threatened. The star saleswoman who failed to win the contract, for example, could remember that she is also a mentor.
5. The biggest lies we tell are to ourselves.
Zoe Chance, a professor in Yale University’s school of management, has shown that even when people do well on a test because they were allowed to cheat, they still see themselves as responsible for their success. People in her experiment who were allowed to cheat on a test in which an answer key was “accidentally” made visible kept predicting they would do well on future tests that didn’t contain an answer key. It took them doing poorly on two more tests before they finally realized they probably weren’t going to do so great without the answer key they had on the first test.
We tend to think we are smarter than we are, and that the central stories we tell ourselves are true — that we work harder and are more moral and steadfast than others. Until I dug into my own central story about being the overachieving youngest child of seven, set in contrast to a brother who screwed up constantly and died relatively young of addiction, I didn’t realize how full of holes and laced with judgment my story was. Noticing your self-lies is really hard, even for the self-aware.
6. Work on honesty is never finished.
You are probably not as honest as you think. Your vocabulary around truth, deception and lying is probably flawed and incomplete. You will probably be dishonest today, even as you judge someone else for their dishonesty. Even in writing a book about honesty and interviewing dozens of experts in the field, I still struggle.
Commitment to honesty happens in excruciatingly small increments. I’ve learned that the people who proclaim loudly they are miles ahead of everyone else are almost certainly not. It’s the ones who shut up long enough to notice their own behavior who can make a few millimeters of progress in becoming more honest.
Judi Ketteler writes about the joy and weirdness of midlife. Her new book “Would I Lie To You? The Amazing Power of Being Honest in a World That Lies” was just published by Citadel Press.