Why we lie


Just finishing up Karl Marlantes’ What it is Like to go to War (New York, Atlantic Monthly Press). It is not an easy book even as it is a quick read. There are many psychological frailties brought to the surface that should unnerve any reader, and not just those who want to know about war changes a person. One such human foible, lying, gets a whole chapter. After describing types of lies we tell, he has this to say about why we lie,

We lie because we find ourselves in positions where it appears the truth will hurt us. But a truth isn’t a thing like a flying rock. So by “hurt us” we must mean it will hurt some goal toward which we strive. And we’ve managed to confuse that goal with a definition of ourselves. “Hurt our ability to achieve our ends” equates to “hurt us.” Worse, we have such a large number of goals to use to define ourselves that we rarely know which to apply at any particular time. I want to be a hero. I want to stay alive. I want to be a good officer. I want my troops to like me. I want to defend my commanding officer. I want his job. I want to tell the whole world how incredibly difficult a time I have just had. I don’t want to look like a crybaby. I want to uphold the honor of my service. I want to get even. (p. 132)

I think Marlantes nails us all here. We might not struggle with the same wants but surely we can find ourselves in the same sort of struggle between hero and self, between getting what we want and doing the right thing. And we get confused as to what will get hurt if we tell the truth. Though we lie to ourseves that our lies are to protect others, mostly we lie to protect our own self.

4 Comments

Filed under Good Books, Great Quotes

4 responses to “Why we lie

  1. Tom

    Yep, I think that covers most of it. There’s a great little book that could be a companion volume – “Mistakes Were Made (but not by me): Why we Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts” (C Tavris and E Aronson). The authors look at cognitive dissonance as a primary motivator rather than rational thought. A little irreverent, but interesting. Certainly fits the scenarios above.

  2. Yes, saw that book and liked it. Loved the title! Somewhere on this site (you could search if interested), I talked about a book called “On Apology”. Also covered the ways we lie in apologies. Useful.

  3. debbie

    So then humility would be a good antidote to lying…

  4. Tom

    Ha! Excellent point, Debbie. Humble people don’t need to lie…

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