The Psychology of Honesty (Part 1 of 3)

There are two types of liars.

The first type does not feel comfortable with lying. He feels guilty for betraying other people with his lie. He also feels awkward because lying complicates his life and his mind. He has to remember who knows about the falsehood and who does not. He must keep two separate lists in his mind at all times: one for the actual facts, the other for the ‘facts’ he has created.

The second type of liar is much more sophisticated—and dangerous. He believes his own lies. He convinces himself that the ‘alternate reality’ he creates with his lies actually exists. He is the more persuasive, more ‘effective’ type of liar. He can fool loved ones, business associates, juries—even millions.

The persuasive liar rationalizes his deceit by way of the subjectivist viewpoint.

The subjectivist viewpoint holds that there are different realities for different people—that my reality and your reality may not be the same. It starts with the perfectly reasonable assertion that people have different perspectives and points-of-view. It then smuggles in the false and vicious conclusion that there is, therefore, no one objective reality.

What Does Objective Reality Have to Do With Dishonesty?

Take a simple example. You and I are standing in different parts of the room, looking at a lamp. To you, the lamp looks one way and to me it looks slightly different because we view the lamp from different angles. I can see the ornaments on the front of the lamp. You can’t see the ornaments, but you can see the plug coming out of its side. I can only see the front of the lampshade, which looks clean and nice. You can primarily see the side of the lampshade, which has a spot on it.

Because of our different perspectives, I am more inclined to view the lamp as nice and pretty while you are more inclined to view the lamp as flawed. Do these different perspectives prove, therefore, that the lamp possesses no objective reality? Can we say: ‘In your reality the lamp is messed up, in my reality the lamp is pretty. Therefore, there is no one true reality’? No, of course not. The lamp is what it is, regardless of what you or I see or do not see. This is what common sense and reason tell us.

But the consistent subjectivist would have to say that yes, indeed, in your reality the lamp is one thing and in my reality the lamp is another. Normally, the subjectivist applies his thinking to moral dilemmas rather than to lamps; but this makes his reasoning no less illogical.

Once you dispense with the idea of objective reality, all hopes of morality (including honesty) disappear. Anything can be rationalized or justified or wished away, even by otherwise seemingly ‘reasonable’ people.

The very notion of morality presupposes that there exists an objective reality upon which we base our moral choices. If your house and your car represent objective pieces of property, for example, then it is possible to claim them as your property rights. If they don’t constitute objective items, then who’s to say what belongs to whom? By what right do you demand that the police protect you from theft, murder, unlawful search, or seizure—if everything is relative?

If reality is subjective, then all bets are off. Life becomes one big free-for-all with morality and ethics (including property rights and other ethical tenets most of us take for granted) thrown out the window. As a delinquent teenager once told me, ‘Who is anyone to tell me what’s right and wrong? There is no true or untrue.’

So long as he holds the premise that reality is not objective, teaching him about the immorality of stealing or initiating violence remains pointless.

Do people who subscribe to the subjective viewpoint practice their philosophy consistently? Of course not. To do so would mean literal suicide. Only a psychopath would step in front of an oncoming truck, indifferent to its path because ‘there is no objective reality.’ Only a common criminal would assume that whatever he desires belongs to him.

The trick to making a subjectivist viewpoint ‘work’ is to apply it only when it’s convenient—propping it up with rationalizations that make the eyes of thinking people glaze over. For real-life examples, think of a con artist you know or have read about. Or turn on the television and watch some of our politicians or professional intellectuals in action.

Obscuring the existence of objective reality is much more common—yet difficult to detect—than either psychopathy or simple criminality. Careful, critical thinking is necessary to combat it.

How Can You Tell If Someone Is Lying?

Most research on the detection of lying focuses on external behaviors such as eye-blinking, stuttering, and evasive body language. While there may be some merit to these studies, in many cases other explanations for such behaviors are possible. On television, for instance, a person may blink excessively because of the bright lights.

Sometimes people stutter because they’re confused, but not because they’re lying.

Strictly behavioral theories do not go deep enough. They do not address the mind and the personality behind the dishonest or evasive behaviors. They look at what the body does, but they totally disregard what the mind thinks and feels.

To predict whether a person might lie, you need to look at his underlying convictions as well as his behaviors. Examine critically what he says, thinks, and feels in order to find out his underlying beliefs. The underlying beliefs of a typical liar include such rationalizations as the following:

‘It’s OK to lie when it spares somebody else’s feelings.’

‘It’s OK to lie if I have a higher, more noble purpose in mind.’

‘It’s OK to lie if the subject is nobody else’s business.’

‘It’s OK to lie if it works, if I fool everybody involved.’

This is not an exhaustive list of rationalizations, of course. But they are the ones I most frequently encounter as a psychotherapist. If psychotherapists are experts on anything, it’s hearing people’s rationalizations—particularly about such behaviors as lying. Most of the rationalizations I hear from people boil down to one of the four premises above.

Continued in tomorrow’s column.