Lying can be a slippery slope. One deception can lead to another. It’s science. According to a recent New York Times article, “people who tell small, self-serving lies are likely to progress to bigger falsehoods, and over time, the brain appears to adapt to the dishonesty.” At ORANS, it’s affirming to hear that science is confirming what we have been saying about the dangers of lying and deception.
Yikes! What does all that mean, exactly? Does it mean that telling your best friend that you love her brand new shirt, even if you hate it, will set you on the path to outright fraud?
It’s okay, the short answer is: probably not. The key in understanding what lies will potentially develop into larger deceptions rests in the fact that the most dangerous mistruths are “self-serving.” That puts saving to your friend from your opinion about something small in order to protect her feelings in a very different category than taking a little extra change out of the cash register after a shift in order to afford a soda. Telling your friend a “white lie” that is stated or allowed to exist in the interest of compassion for others is an important way to be kind to others. Lying in favor of your own self-interest is a transactional move that ultimately hurts more than it helps.
The New York Times reached its conclusion from a study done on lying. The participants of the study “were asked to advise a partner in another room about how many pennies were in a jar. When the subjects believed that lying about the amount of money was to their benefit, they were more inclined to dishonesty and their lies increased over time. As lying increased, the response in the amygdala (the brain stem) decreased. And the size of the decline from one trial to another predicted how much bigger a subject’s next lie would be. These findings suggested that the negative emotional signals initially associated with lying decrease as the brain becomes desensitized.” When the lie benefits just you- or, in other words, when it is transactional- it primes you to make another self-serving lie later on, and it may cause the line between what is acceptable and what is not to become blurry.
What does this mean for you? The challenge for you is that you might be used to getting what you want in negotiations with others. You have been trained to compete, and deception often gives you a competitive advantage. That is part of winning in a transactional world. Someone asks you a difficult question and you hedge or even outright lie to keep from disclosing truthful information that might weaken you. You give information that is truthful, but you leave out damaging facts. You let another person base their decision on limited or false information when you know that if they had complete and truthful information they might make a different decision. You do these things for various reasons. You are afraid you won’t get what you want. You don’t want to look weak or stupid or lazy or careless. You do it for self-preservation and protection of your desired image in the eyes of others. Or, you are just not up for being fully engaged with another person on a difficult or potentially embarrassing topic and so you take the easy way out. And, in a commercial context, you do it for money-–to get more, or to spend less.
The first step in being clear is to look at the situation from the perspective of the other and ask yourself, “If I were in their shoes would the deception seem reasonable? Is it within the bounds of fairness?” This is the thinking behind what we like to call the “Golden Rule” ethical position.
The ideal for the other person usually is for you to volunteer all information that you have that might be relevant to their decisions, for all information that you give to be true, and for you to make sure that they fully understand every piece of information that you share with them. From this ethical point on the spectrum, you are making the other person’s job in dealing with you as easy as possible. They don’t have to ask any questions, but you welcome any questions they ask and respond fully and honestly. They don’t have to probe for information. In fact, you work to find out what information they might need for their informed decision-making by asking them questions to explore their needs and desires. They can rely on everything you say, and you might even go to the trouble of providing the evidence and proof necessary for them to have complete confidence in all of your representations. You share with them your analysis of the options and fairness of them. In a commercial context, you might even share your information about cost and expected levels of profit. Furthermore, as information is shared, you make sure that they fully understand it. You use reflections and summaries to ensure clear communication. You even offer to help them with their analysis and decision-making, helping them to test options to ensure that they feel that any decision they make is fully informed and freely made without coercion of any kind. You want to ensure that they have the benefit of all the information you have.
This is a generous and kind approach. It also ensures that you are not starting to slide down a slippery path of deception. It may not be the easiest way to share information, but it is often the best. Hold yourself- and others- to this standard, and see the difference it can make!