Lying — Sam Harris | Summary & notes
My thoughts 💭
A tiny book with the power to change the way you think about lies.
We grow up and live in an environment where lies are routine, so we learn to lie on many occasions and for different reasons. When we’re kids, adults tell us lies are wrong: the rule usually comes from religion or some form of ethics. We’re never exposed to an intelligent discussion of the subject. At least, I never was. Lying is precisely that: a sensible examination of the subject.
Bonus points: you can read the book in one sitting. Recommended to everyone, especially to those who believe really, really hard in white lies.
My notes 📓
To lie is to intentionally mislead others when they expect honest communications. Therefore, a woman wearing makeup or a magician performing his show don’t fit under this definition.
The perception of a lie’s weight changes depending on whether you are lying or lied to. The liar tends to underestimate the weight of the lie and believe it harmless as long as it stays undetected. But if roles were reversed, few would choose to be lied to. Instead, they would feel betrayed.
The Mirror of Honesty
There is some evidence in the scientific literature that lies, even white ones, tend to impoverish the quality of relationships (on both sides).
Honesty is rewarding and liberating, particularly when you meet another honest person. You know you can be yourself, and you can expect that the other person will too.
But being honest is not easy. It can be painful and surface problems or fears. If you have to answer honestly questions like “Are you in a toxic relationship?”, “How did you get that bruise?”, “Do you have a problem with alcohol?”, you are forced to confront reality instead of sweeping it under the carpet.
Two Types of Lies
There are two types of lies: active lies and omissions.
- Stealing $100 vs. not returning $100 you got by mistake.
- Saying you have a degree when you don’t vs. not correcting someone who thinks you do.
Human beings, for some reason, consider active lies more serious than omissions, even when the result is the same.
Growing up, we learn different social norms: telling white lies is one of them. However, there are no reasons to believe these norms lead to optimal relationships. Instead, there is some evidence of the opposite, in the case of lying.
Why are white lies an issue? First, they are lies, so they harm honesty, integrity, and mutual understanding, among other things. Moreover, they cause invisible damage because of the difference between reality and the story the lie tells.
Let’s say a friend asks you: “Does this suit make me fat?” There are many different answers you could give. Some are:
- Naaaah, don’t worry at all!
- A bit, but it’s the suit’s fault.
- Maybe you’ve got a few extra pounds, regardless of the suit.
The friend would feel reassured if you gave him the first answer. At the same time, though, you are denying him the possibility of knowing what you think and acting accordingly. In case 2, he could’ve chosen a better suit. In case 3, he could’ve chosen to lose some weight.
Even if the truth may hurt, you can often accompany it with positive facts to lessen the emotional impact. In the example above, you could’ve also told your friend that you care about him and want to help him choose what’s best.
When we lie for “the benefit of others,” we arrogate to ourselves the right to decide, as if we were entitled to judge what is best for them.
Seeing someone lying erodes your trust in them, even if they’re not lying to you. Will they? Have they already?
Usually, we tend to resort to insincere praise rather than give honest opinions. However, although it’s not pleasant to give or receive, constructive feedback is valuable. It helps you understand how you’re doing and decide if you want to change something.
Also, if we are consistently sincere, other people will know that our praise means something: it’s genuine.
Having secrets doesn’t mean being dishonest. The truth could very well be: “I prefer not to say.”
The problem arises when someone else tells us a secret. Secrets are burdens to carry around and can lead us to lie. If possible, it’s better to avoid them.
Lies in Extremis
Just as self-defense makes sense, lying in extremis may make sense too. That doesn’t mean, however, that lying is always the best thing to do.
Let’s make an extreme example. A murderer is looking for a boy, and this boy is hiding in your home. The murderer comes to your door and asks you if you’ve seen the kid. To protect him, you lie and say you’ve noticed one running down the road. The murderer leaves but ends up killing another kid.
Lying was the most attractive choice, but it led to a bad outcome.
In this situation, being sincere doesn’t need to mean acquiescence. The truth could be: “I wouldn’t tell you even if I knew. And if you take another step, I’ll put a bullet in your brain.” It takes courage and forces you to assume a burden. But someone must. If it’s not you, it’ll be a braver neighbor or, ultimately, the cop arresting the murderer.
Keeping lies requires mental effort. First, you need to keep track of the lies you tell. Then, every time a lie is about to collide with reality, you need to protect it, likely by inventing new lies. Then, you need to keep track of these too. The vicious circle restarts. Lies tend to become unsustainable, and this is true even if they’re not uncovered.
Moreover, the people you lie to may sense that you can’t be trusted, even if they can’t tell exactly why. The lies probably make your communication less direct, as if you danced around the facts rather than going straight to the point. Further, research suggests that even the liars themselves tend to lose trust in the people they lie to.
One criterion for integrity is avoiding behaviors that lead to shame and remorse. If you have integrity, you don’t feel the need to lie about your life. If you pretend to be a different person, you become vulnerable (e.g., to scandals).
Discovering their “big lies” undermined the trust people have in authorities. It holds for any authority, like politicians, governments, scientists.
In 1998, Andrew Wakefield published a study where he connected autism and the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine. Since then, the study has been proven wrong, and it’s now considered an “elaborate fraud.” Wakefield’s medical license has been revoked. However, the consequences of the study didn’t magically disappear. Vaccination rates have plummeted, and, in turn, children have gotten ill, and some even died. The world is still full of anti-vaxxers today.
As humans, we’re also subject to the “illusory truth effect,” which hasn’t helped. Even the people who discovered the fraud in the context of debunking may remember it as if it was true. We tend to believe in what is familiar to us.
There may be instances where big lies make sense. Perhaps during war or in a spy’s job (assuming espionage makes sense). But we can’t draw lessons for everyday life from these extreme cases, just as we wouldn’t from looking at the behavior of an astronaut in space.