In a world where lying has become normalized, what is the future of honesty?

Pants on fire.
Pants on fire.
Image: Reuters/Jim Lo Scalzo
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We are told from childhood that it is wrong to lie, but every day we see evidence that not telling the truth is the way to achieve power and success.

For examples, you only have to look at America’s current state of political affairs. “Many Politicians Lie. But Trump Has Elevated the Art of Fabrication,” reads a recent New York Times headline. Russian lies may have not only influenced the 2016 US presidential election, but also international events from Brexit to this week’s Catalonian referendum. Most recently, fake news proliferated in the aftermath of the Las Vegas massacre “as people looking for information read and shared bogus reports and hoaxes without even realizing it.”

The political, financial, and personal havoc and pain created by these lies is immeasurable, yet nothing seems to stop them—and, ultimately, no one seems to care terribly much. As Politifact writes, Trump takes “a bold approach to truthfulness—essentially saying: Catch me if you can—and even if you do, it doesn’t matter.”

As more and more lies by government and business leaders come to light, we might be excused for thinking that honesty is not nearly as important as our parents led us to believe. In fact, it appears that dishonesty in business and politics can lead to greater positions of power and success. Political leaders have long used propaganda to consolidate power, from Lenin using it to destroy his enemies and take over Russia to its modern, digital cousin. On the business side, a recent article in the New Yorker alleges that recently retired Trump advisor Carl Icahn uses lies as part of his investment strategies.

People lie for all sorts of reasons, however, not just power consolidation. Steve Jobs fibbed to increase his staff’s productivity and creativity, for example: Jeffrey Pfeffer writes that the Apple co-founder had an “amazing ability to present what he would like to be true as if it were already reality.”

If Jobs thought it was okay, it seems that the rest of the populous does, too. Research says that most people lie at least some of the time, and that many don’t think their lies are serious or of any concern, even if they’re caught. And it’s not all bad: Two other researchers who ran virtual models of hundreds of potential social situations found that that small white lies, such as those that avoid hurting someone’s feelings, sometimes actually help smooth social interactions, not hinder them.

But lies have more impact on our psyches than we realize. In business, romance, politics, and friendship, trust can mean the difference between a great relationship and a dysfunctional one. The erosion of trust can have a significant psychological impact, and that trust is based on an expectation of honesty.

In friendships and intimate relationships, for instance, the expectation of truth and honesty leads to a sense of safety, well-being, and an overall healthy connection. When one person finds out that the other has been lying about larger and more important issues, positive feelings turn to anger, hurt, and resentment. In his work on identity, psychotherapist Erik Erikson discovered that a sense of insecurity, self-doubt, and depression occurs when we cannot trust the people we depend on to tell us the truth.

For instance, in diary studies with college students, researchers found “social interactions in which lies were told were less pleasant and less intimate than those in which no lies were told.” The virtual models showed that self-centered or selfish lies can tear a social network apart. Researchers at Notre Dame University concluded that the physical and mental stress of lying and being lied to was the consequence of deteriorating emotional connections and feelings of trust being lost within relational groups.

However, while neuroscientists have found evidence through functional MRI’s and other scans that lying taxes the fibber’s brain, it does not seem to be any more physically damaging than other activities that take some concentration, such as preparing a meal or playing a board game. Lies do not appear to release any particular harmful hormones into a liar’s bloodstream or create any kind of serious physical discomfort for the person telling them.

Even if it doesn’t affect our chemistry, it’s still better for us mentally to tell the truth. Honesty increases self-esteem and the capacity for compassion and intimacy, writes clinical psychologist Linda Firestone, and the Notre Dame researchers recently shared another study that offers evidence of the positive results of telling the truth. Participants were told:

“Throughout every day of the next five weeks, you must speak honestly, truthfully, and sincerely—not only about the big things, but also about the small things, such as why you were late. You must always mean what you say in situations where your statements are to be taken seriously, as opposed to when joking or obviously exaggerating. While you certainly can choose not to answer questions, you must always mean what you say.”

Over the course of the next five weeks, those participants who followed these instructions were recorded as exhibiting fewer physical health symptoms, including fewer sore throats, headaches, and nausea, than those in the control group, which was not required to tell the truth. They also were recorded as being more relaxed, both physically and emotionally.

Over time, honesty and trust can social structures stronger. But how do we make this change writ large? We could take a lesson from Erikson, who once noted that as parents bring up their children, children are also bringing up their parents. So be honest yourself, and you will be more likely to receive honesty back. Leadership may not be able to institute honesty until we, the people, demand it.