On the issue of lying

“Don’t worry about it! It’s an easy, relaxing trail. It’ll take at most 50 minutes. Don’t sweat it.” That was the first in a series of lies that our guide told us.

To be fair, I should have known that he was probably lying, as I stared at the three-kilometer trail that wound up the mountain. But, for one reason or another, I ignored my gut feeling and made myself believe the white lie.

It’s impossible to know how or when lying—a false statement made to deceive or manipulate the truth—sprang up. At its best it is employed on a day-to-day basis out of politeness or for avoiding awkwardness; at at its worst it can be used to mislead entire nations. Now, I’ll be the first one to say that lying is usually pretty bad, and no one wants to be called out for “speaking with forked tongue,” “lying through his or her teeth,” or any of the other degrees of deceit that English can express.

Whether it’s a tour guide lying about the difficulty of a trail, or a nurse reciting the comforting lie that the vaccine won’t hurt, lying is a normal part of our daily interactions. In the 1990s, a team of psychologists from the University of Virginia, Pfeiffer University, Texas A&M University, and Cornell University Medical College conducted two studies on lying, including a total of 147 participants, in which seventy community members reported telling a lie a day, and seventy-seven college students reported telling two. Their research revealed that the majority of the participants viewed lying as a common part of social interaction, suggesting that they did not regard their lies as serious and did not plan them much or worry about being caught.

What makes lying notable, however, is our ability to hypocritically condemn it while we absentmindedly churn out one fib after another. We teach our children that it is wrong to lie about who really broke the lamp, but we lull ourselves into believing that when we do lie it is in the name of civility or the better good. Lying has become commonplace; how else could I possibly justify not wanting to go out with a group of friends because of a bad stomachache, when I actually just don’t want to hang out with them?

Our ability to lie seems to develop at an early age, according to a study conducted by psychologists at Brock University and the University of California‒San Diego. From a participant pool of sixty-five toddlers who were asked to not peek at a toy, eighty percent peeked. Of that eighty percent, most two-year-olds were honest and confessed to peeking. As age increased, however, the percentage that denied peeking increased as well. Their evidence suggests that from the age of forty-two months onward, children become increasingly capable of telling lies.

But let’s return to the paradox of lying. If lying is so normal, and we learn how to do it at an early age, why are we always surprised when politicians, bankers, and celebrities are caught doing it? How can we account for the shocked reaction to Watergate or the Mensalão scandal when we, from a rational standpoint, can deduce that all human beings lie and do it on a daily basis? If lying is so commonplace, can I really blame my tour guide for misleading us on the difficulty of the trail when all he wanted was for us to participate in the hike? All I know is, after two hours into the exhausting hike, that was last thing on my mind.