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Lying is Alive and Well in American Culture

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“The Liar” was a short story written by Henry James in the late 1800s. It‘s the story of an artist who meets a woman he had loved in his youth, and learns she’s now married to Colonel Capadose, a man addicted to deceiving. Through the plot, James gives a psychological analysis of human conscience and deceitful behaviors prevalent in family life and in society at large.

Many other authors have written about liars and lying. Franz Kafka was a German novelist who referred to lying as “a universal principle.” Whether you agree with him or not, you have to agree that lying appears to be alive and well in American culture.

Headlines from recent weeks about Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s affairs and John Edwards’ fall from grace seem to support this notion. These stories are nothing out of the ordinary. Headlines from years past covered liars and their deceptions too. Remember the Monica Lewinsky scandal? How about the stories about the lies of bankers and Catholic priests? Lying happens every day and every year and it’s not a new topic.

Even in antiquity, philosophers shared their views on the morality of lying. St. Thomas Aquinas and Immanuel Kant condemned it; Plato held that lying was to be avoided, but there were “certain exceptions”; and Aristotle believed lying undermined character and made achievement of the good life more difficult, but he also noted that it was a “mean” – if it ultimately brought good or happiness.  In recent history, the topic of lying has been scrutinized and widely debated.

In 2009, Jessica Bennett wrote an article for Newsweek, “The Truth about Lying – We Are a Culture of Liars.”

In the article, Bennett reported:

“Deception is all around us. We are lied to by government officials and public figures to a disturbing degree; many of our social relationships are based on little white lies we tell each other. We deceive our children, only to be deceived by them in return.”

Bennett makes reference to the book The Liar in Your Life by psychologist Robert Feldman.

She quotes the author:

“There’s always been a lot of lying,” says Feldman, “But I do think we’re seeing a kind of cultural shift where we’re lying more, it’s easier to lie, and in some ways it’s almost more acceptable.”

The number of books written by sociologists and psychologists on the topic of lying suggest that lying and its effects on relationships is of great interest.

Perez Zagorin, in his article, “The Historical Significance of Lying and Dissimilation-Truth-Telling, Lying and Self Deception,” reported:

“Perhaps one might speculate that since the appearance in 1978 of Sissela Bok’s important and widely noticed book, Lying. Moral Choice in Private and Public Life, the concern with lying and deception has continually increased. Bok’s work was actuated by worry over declining standards of truth-telling and for this reason apparently touched a nerve. It coincided with the growing skepticism and mistrust felt among Americans and in other western nations about the veracity of governments, officials, and politicians, as well as lawyers, the medical profession, and business corporations. This attitude may be traced back to the period of the Vietnam War and even before and perhaps provides part of the explanation for the expanding attention within the social sciences to the matter of lying.”

Zagorin also wrote in his article:

“Present-day psychologists, sociologists, and other investigators who examine lying as a type of behavior commonly view it as a normal aspect of human existence, whether in personal relationships or in the public sphere…by treating it as an everyday occurrence, an ordinary fact of social life rather than an exceptional event.”

Another article, “The Deceptive Brain,” by Sean A. Spence, MD, seems to agree with Zagorin‘s view.

Spence reported in his article:

“On the evidence of religious texts dating from antiquity, lying and deception have been of concern to humans for millennia. However, despite the apparent premium placed upon honesty in ancient and modern life, there is emerging evidence from the disciplines of evolutionary studies, child development and developmental psychopathology that the ability to deceive is acquired and, indeed, ‘normal.’ Such behaviors follow a predictable developmental trajectory in human infants and are ‘impaired’ among human beings with specific neurodevelopmental disorders, such as autism. Hence, there seems to be a tension between what is apparently socially undesirable but ‘normal’ (i.e. lying) and what is socially commendable but pathological (i.e. always telling the truth). Higher organisms have evolved the ability to deceive each other consciously or otherwise, while humans, in a social context, are encouraged to refrain from deception.”

Despite the negative repercussions that lying may cause, Spence points out that there are some benefits to lying, which include the following:

  • Learned in childhood, deceit delineates a boundary between “self‘ and “other,” originally between child and parent.
  • Lying eases social interaction, by way of compliments and information management.
  • Deception can sometimes denote consideration for others.
  • Lying facilitates impression management, especially early in a romantic relationship.
  • Deception may also be a vital skill in the context of conflict—for instance, between social groups, countries, or intelligence agencies.

There may be some benefits to lying, like telling your girlfriend she doesn’t look fat in her new pair of jeans or telling Aunt Millie at the Thanksgiving table that the pumpkin pie she burned tasted delicious, but more often than not, lies lead to emotional injury and disappointment. Political careers have been ruined, family lives have been destroyed, innocent spectators have lost their possessions, homes, or life-long earnings. And in the end, the liar himself might even get hurt.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said it best:

“Every violation of truth is not only a sort of suicide in the liar, but is a stab at the health of human society.”

And I have to wonder how the lies of Arnold Schwarzenegger and John Edwards have affected their children. It’s unfortunate but true: The innocent usually pay the emotional price for the lies spread by ego-centric, power-hungry, self-absorbed men.


  • Spence SA. The deceptive brain. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 2004; 97; 6-9
  • Spence SA, Farrow TFD, Herford AE, et al. Behavioral and functional anatomical correlates of deception in humans. Neuro Report 2001;12: 2849–53
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About Luanne Stevenson

Published Ghost Writer; Freelance Writer
  • Sissela Bok was my professor in college and we studied her book Lying, which was pretty new at the time and very much discussed in many circles. Thanks for calling attention to something that’s so pervasive we tend to forget about it – but we shouldn’t.

  • Luanne Stevenson

    Thanks for your comment Jon!

  • Leroy

    Lying and liars is an interesting topic. For a while, when I was very young, I believed that if we all just strained hard and tried to be always truthful that we could eliminate lying and everyone would be happy. Alas!

  • Leroy

    I suppose the converse of James “The Liar” was Dostoyevskis “The Idiot”, a man so simple that he was considered an idiot because of his inability to tell useful lies. Without carefully constructed lies society would disintegrate and we’d all be at each others throats!

  • Leroy – I don’t believe you! 😉

  • Leroy

    To paraphrase La Rochfaucauld “lies are the tribute that vice pays to virtue”.

    Maybe the goal is to be truthful to ourselves while lying to others, because when you start believing your own lies you become psychotic. On the other hand, you must always believe your grandchilds lies. And grandchildren must always believe grandpas lies, too. That’s the model for civil society.

    Parents and children must be truthful because their relation is the model for struggle and war.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    I am reminded of a French proverb: “The man that refuses to lie, does not love his wife.”

    When my wife asks an uncomfortable question – as women often do – about, say, the long-legged model that just walked by as to whether she looks like she’d be a lot of fun in bed? Should I tell her the truth and say, YES!!!…or should I lie through my teeth and tell her that the girl’s too skinny by half and looks like she smokes?

    In reality, and in the view of the French proverb above, I do love my wife, and dearly so…and I do prefer peace in the household. I think most long-time husbands here would agree – but I’m just as sure that they’d never admit their agreement in front of their wives.

    In other words, lies – as distasteful as they surely are – are sometimes very necessary in order to maintain a happy marriage and a happy household. So when are lies acceptable? IMO, only if one has done nothing wrong and has no ill intent, and the lie will in no wise hurt the one being lied to.

    For those guys who disagree, then I would say to go ahead and tell your wives how sexy that blonde was that just walked by…and see how long your wife is going to remember what you said! The answer’s easy – she will remember it for exactly as long as she draws breath…and she will remind you about it…repeatedly!

  • Leroy

    But…but…but you have to be a very good liar to convincingly tell your wife that her friend Joan just looks cheap and not sexy at all with that plunging neckline, so you have to practice regularly to keep your chops.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Leroy –

    I hate so say it, but you’re right…you have to do your utmost to actually mean it when you say it.

    But here’s where it gets better – because by telling her how much better she is over and over, you’re not only convincing her, but you’re also convincing yourself, almost like a self-induced brainwashing. Napoleon Hill said much the same thing (but about money) in his landmark Think and Grow Rich.

    And as a result, I do love my wife, and she is very, very beautiful to me. Others might not think so…but they don’t see what I see.

    Funny how the mind works, how you can actually fool yourself even while you know you’re fooling yourself. The lie becomes real…

    …but I think everyone here would agree that one must only use this for the right reasons – you have to actually love her for herself. Otherwise, I don’t think it’s possible to bring oneself to see her as a good husband should.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Luanne –

    What I’ve written in my past two comments are obviously something I’d never tell my wife…but I would like to hear your take on it, a woman’s point of view, if you will.