Service of Lies

May 17th, 2010

Categories: Deception, Flip Flopping, Lies, White Lies


People lie for obvious reasons. Americans are funny about the penchant. Criminals are often punished by press, public and juries not so much because of what they did wrong, but because they lied about taking drugs, keeping a mistress while married, stealing funds, insider trading or whatever. Scuttlebutt has it that former Governor Spitzer will be OK because he admitted to his wrongdoing.

Within a week, The Wall Street Journal twice covered the subject head-on, which may have been coincidence, or may be an oblique way to nibble at the hanky panky going on not only on Wall Street but everywhere, while explaining the causes.

I’m not talking about the kind of story such as “Ex-Senator Could Face Longer Term in Fraud Case,” in Friday’s New York Times although it illustrates my first point. Benjamin Weiser reported “Federal prosecutors in Manhattan are seeking a significantly longer prison sentence for former State Senator Efrain Gonzalez, Jr., claiming that he lied when he told a judge he wanted to withdraw his guilty plea because he was innocent of the charges.”

I am referring to “Survival of the Fibbest: Why We Lie So Well,” by Shirley S. Wang and Eric Felten’s De Gustibus column, “6,300 Dupes Want to Know: Why’d You Lie?

childadult1Wang covers the development of lying from childhood to adulthood. I got the impression from some points made that smarter people lie-“Since telling a lie involves multiple brain processes, the more developed frontal regions of adolescent and adult brains help them keep up their bluffing.” Now lying is considered bluffing? And anyway, I’ve known world-class liars who are intelligent but who eventually forget their lies and lose all credibility with me and goodness knows how developed the frontal regions of my brain are.

Wang proffers a good excuse: “Many adults don’t even notice when they lie because they do it so often for altruistic purposes and may stop making a distinction between that and other motives.” That’s a good one. Because I don’t tell one friend who has gone through hell that she looks as she fears or I do tell another friend that her dinner was tasty when it resembled sawdust, does that give me a pass to lie to my family, clients and friends because I don’t know the difference between the white and black kind?

professorsIn the second Journal article, Eric Felten wrote about researchers Modupe Akinola of Columbia University and Katherine Milkman of the University of Pennsylvania who duped over 6,000 professors into responding to a question for a study by pretending to be a guidance-seeking graduate student. Their excuse was that they would have tainted the results of their study–to learn if professors give up more of their time if asked to help a student immediately or in the future–had they said who they were. Some respondents were livid, but Felten notes that “The American Psychological Association ethics code specifically allows ‘deceptive techniques’ in research where ‘effective nondeceptive alternative procedures are not feasible.'”

Felten also wrote that the author of “Illusions of Reality: A History of Deception in Social Psychology,” James H. Korn, “found that before 1945, fewer than one in ten studies used deception. By the 1970s, half of such research relied on trickery.”

Is deception/spin lying? Waiting for the New York State legislature to pass a budget, Governor Patterson suggested a one-day-a-week furlough for 100,000 state workers to save $200+ million. Meanwhile, to replace several people in his press office, Patterson promoted five from inside and gave them raises totaling $40,000. The representatives for the disgruntled state workers ran to the media and headlines screamed that the Governor was giving raises to his staff while causing others to lose their incomes. The facts: One staff member’s salary catapulted from $35,000 to $40,000. Those who left the press office were making $150,000. To keep the focus on the budget, the Governor told the staff he would take away their raises so as to keep everyone focused on the budget crisis. Then the reps accused him of not knowing what he was doing, of flip-flopping.

policeWhen the police dupe a suspect into confessing by claiming to know for sure that such and such happened or saying that an alleged collaborator in an adjacent room has already spilled the beans about the caper– when neither is true–are these OK lies?

While I don’t cotton to lying, hate being lied to, and have a clear inner compass that steers me away from doing so, there may be extraordinary times when lying is OK, but the liars, in these instances, must be scrupulously honest experts who know the rules and have good reasons for breaking them.

Do you think deception is lying? Do you think that there are exceptions when lying is acceptable?


15 Responses to “Service of Lies”

  1. David Reich Said:

    Deception and lying are different, although related, things.

    We all tell little lies that are socially acceptable. like telling a friend his hair looks great when it actually doesn’t. We lie to avoid hurting feelings and no one gets hurt in the process. But bigger lies can do real damage, and just because someone confesses to the lie after the fact doesn’t make it all better — like the Spitzer example. He showed he is not a trustworthy individual, so I wouldn’t want him as my attorney general or governor.

  2. Lucrezia Said:

    I see lies as costly temporary conveniences since they are difficult to maintain and usually backfire in the end. It is not necessarily for moral reasons that I don’t see lying as a good idea, but because I don’t enjoy dealing with the consequences, not to speak of loss of face and respect.

    Using the Spitzer incident as a case in point, too bad he didn’t use his straying as a strong argument for legalizing prostitution. The state is running out of cash? Well why not capitalize on a business which will not go away regardless of regulations passed? This would mean millions, if not billions of dollars poured into state coffers for worthy projects. Don’t bother with a lecture on morality, since bleeding taxpayers dry because of idealized and unrealistic visions of chastity is just as bad, if not worse than existing archaic statutes. The shade of the late William Buckley will undoubtedly smile upon the observation that his call for legalization of drugs makes equal sense and would pour even more money into a thirsty public till.

    Those who read the papers at the time of the Spitzer debacle, might have noted that certain unsavory Republican forces were at work and at least partially responsible for the torrid revelations. Two of these sleazy entities are a couple who advertize for “forsomes” on porn sites, and were all too happy to make this announcement in the Daily News. Business must be humming for those two, especially if untaxed dollars are involved.

    In short, Spitzers lies cost everyone. His public apology is silly, since it is owed to his family, not the public. He should not have lied, should not have stepped down, and the State Legislature should stop disenfranchising the electorate. Whether he should have won a second term should be up to the voters.

  3. Simon Carr Said:


    I agree with you. I don’t like lying. I am also not sure that I understand the difference between lying and manipulating the truth – including to accomplish the supposedly “good” goals of making good guys look great or getting us to consume yet more mindlessly.

    By the way, as a boy, I was taught to eat everything on my plate whether I was hungry or not. I am now fat, and looking around me I think most other Americans were taught just as I was. I understand how it works. You eat too much and that means that you pay more for what you eat. As a consequence, you have become prime bait for those sharpies that want to sell you something to make you look thinner, i.e.: “better.” They get you coming and going.

    I know that this might put many people out of work, but give us small portions of everything and stop trying to get us to consume what we don’t need. I realize that this is not exactly what you would call lying, but it is not telling the full truth either.

    One area where I find a distressingly less than honest approach to one’s subject, albeit for the best of motives, is in the rewriting of history. What happened in the past happened. It can’t be changed. People slaughtered people; people enslaved people. Women were thought to be inferior to men, and in a few cases, visa versa. Some people achieved far greater levels of sophistication in their civilizations than others.

    The time of the Civil War was a nasty period in the history of the United States. People were killed, maimed and abused. Property was destroyed and the southern portion of the country was humiliated with reverberations that have lasted even to now a century and a half later. When the war was over, two great things had happened: There was no more slavery in the country, and it had acquired a legitimate folk hero, Abraham Lincoln, whose stature as an extraordinarily remarkable human being and leader is unmatched even by George Washington.

    I have just finished reading a brilliant new biography of Lincoln by an outstanding historian of our time. It was meticulously documented, but in my opinion, flawed. To make a point, the author gave disproportionate weight, citing verse and chapter, to Lincoln’s sensitivity to African-American issues. The author was certainly not lying, but was he reporting what actually happened? He was, no doubt with great sincerity, speaking to issues with which we grapple in our own time.

    I came away doubting his truthfulness, which in a way was like saying that he was lying, or was it?


  4. Ann L Said:

    I sometimes lie to avoid hurting feelings. I do feel if you are a public figure and trust has been extended to you through election by the people you have a moral obligation NOT TO LIE….

  5. Jeanne Byington Said:


    When I was in high school, a friend lied to me and her lie hurt me deeply. I forgot about it until recently, when she approached me out of the blue to participate in some business/charity she has launched. I may be part elephant, but suddenly that lie came back to me–I hadn’t thought about her in all these years! Guess who isn’t playing ball with her?

    Lucrezia, I think your tax-finding suggestions are great. It may be hard collecting the money, as the participants won’t want to be signing credit cards for drugs or a prostitute’s services so totals-for-the year might be fuzzy.

    Simon, I see observers of history much like witnesses to an accident: They don’t lie, they see things differently–from a variety of perspectives.

    As for blaming marketers for making people fat or forcing them to purchase what they don’t want–I don’t buy. I pull chips & soda off the grocery shelf–nobody has a gun at my head. I used to smoke and was the person who had to stop. Parents used to tell children to eat everything because waste was considered wrong. Marketers weren’t at those dining tables.

    I have never promoted a food. But I don’t see that lying is involved by telling potential customers the benefits of a product whether it’s tasty, beautiful, useful, of good value, low-maintenance…….etc.

  6. Carol Said:

    What about the concept of “lying by omission,” in which a person neglects to reveal complete or accurate info because it’s to their advantage to do so? The perpetrator may think it’s sort of, kind of, not exactly lying, but to me it’s very deceptive.

  7. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Perfect addition to the conversation. A crude example is for a car salesperson to say to someone in Minnesota, “Oh, you wanted a car that is safe to drive in snow?” or duping someone into agreeing to something by not giving them all the facts because you are pretty sure that with those facts, they won’t buy.

  8. Lucrezia Said:

    Lets face it folks, lies, like prostitution, drugs & etc. are with us forever, and it’s just about impossible to make them pay. People resort to them, despite knowledge of unpleasant results to follow. Why? Beats me!

    I am not enamored of Abraham Lincoln, and no way would I place him over George Washington who realized the evil of slavery and provided his slaves freedom after his widows death. Under Lincoln a horrific and unnecessary war took place, one of the excuses being its abolition. Why the 19th Century United States was so far behind the rest of the civilized world in permitting such an abomination is beyond comprehension.

    What was worse was the subsequent freeing of a people unable to fend for themselves as a result of previous laws prohibiting their education. They were free to roam about unable to read, write and lacking skills with which to make a living.

    In short, they were free to starve.

    How is it that neither Lincoln nor his administration thought of dealing with such a situation before shooting down Southerners? Were they that naive, or were they merely irresponsible? Our 16th President did not hide a negative attitude towards blacks, and has been quoted to say he did not consider them his equal, or words to that effect. His actions, or rather lack of same, confirm such sentiments. Ignoring an issue of this magnitude demands an explanation, and I would be gratified to see it surface, but am not holding my breath. It’s difficult not to wonder how many other self serving myths (nice word for lies) may be lurking in a students history book.

  9. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I don’t equate a myth with a lie. The very word implies a story, folklore. does a great job of tracking urban legands. Here’s a link to the 25 top:

    On the other hand, the attorney general of Connecticut, Richard Blumenthal, who is running for Senate, was caught on camera referring to his stint in Viet Nam during the war–where he did not serve. Myth? No. Lie? Yes.

    As for your analysis of Abraham Lincoln vs. Simon’s view, you and other history buffs have the advantage of 20/20 hindsight. What a good idea it would have been to educate slaves before freeing them as you so vividly put it, “In short, they were free to starve.” I wish I knew enough about the period–was there a movement to try that Lincoln opposed?

  10. Simon Carr Said:


    Your comment in response to mine, and to a lesser extent, Lucrezia’s, make precisely my point: History is not an interpretation or manipulation of past facts to suit a current purpose. History consists of an accumulation of actual events that happened in the past involving real people.

    They are not changeable because they are in the past.

    A good historian has a duty to provide as accurate information as he possibly can about them not a concocted “interpretation” to make his book sell or to whitewash spots off the face of his subject. Unless he includes the words, “In my opinion, although others differ in their views…,” in which case he is not writing history, rather, an editorial, he is not being honest to his fundamental duty as an historian.

    We all have opinions about what happened in the past, but they are opinions, not facts. I purposely used the words, “folk hero,” to describe Lincoln because he indeed became, after his death, a bigger and more awe-inspiring figure than perhaps he actually was, and that is a fact, not an opinion. However, based upon what he said and wrote, and he mostly wrote his own speeches and letters, and what many of his contemporaries thought of him, I am inclined still to view Lincoln as probably the greatest of our Presidents. That’s an opinion, not a lie.


  11. Lucrezia Said:

    As for collecting for prostitution, you would probably never get 100%, but a good portion of revenue would be reported while none is now. It would also be less of a health hazard if licensing demanded certain standards. Existing laws encourage plagues such as cervical cancer. Nice!

  12. Lucrezia Said:

    There has been a misunderstanding, since there was no intent to point to Mr. Carr’s statements as lies. I was under the impression I was referring to textbooks. As to my opinions regarding Abe Lincoln, they were formed after curiosity led me to suspect there was something wrong. There are far too many accolades. In my view, opinions should be based on the gathering of facts, not sentiments. What I found, or at least, think I found, was an amazing lack of follow through in actions, especially when it came to victims of the Civil War, followed by an equally amazing lack of understanding that a hefty majority of its victims were precisely those said war was allegedly meant to rescue: Blacks. It makes sense to prepare for what happens after one wins, or is that too much to ask?

    American History is not my strong suit, but I don’t remember hearing anything about President Lincoln having the nerve to lead troops in battle. He hired people, and made memorable speeches. George Washington had the courage to go to war. Same for Andrew Jackson. Perhaps better things would happen if our leaders were able to demonstrate leadership in the face of battle before assuming leadership in the White House. Now that’s an opinion!

  13. JBS Said:

    I tell white lies sometimes, such as when someone asks me what I think of their baby or new dress. If the kid is the ugliest child I’ve ever seen or the dress is hideous, I lie and tell them the baby is darling and the dress is great on them.

    White lies are OK.

  14. Frank Paine Said:

    Jeanne, I’m intrigued by the fact that there seem to be only a few folks responding to the excellent issue you are raising. Is that because lying is so taken for granted that noone cares about the difference between truth and falsehood anymore? What a scary thought! Or might it be because they can’t tell the difference? Scarier yet, when people confuse their lies with the truth even in their own minds…

    I know that for me, I worry a great deal about the thin line between lying and deception. I would be tempted to set a no-lying rule for myself–seems clear and simple–but that fails on the fact that people can’t tell the difference. And I won’t claim that I never lie, but I find myself constantly reminding myself of the difference between the lie and reality. Once you can’t tell the difference, you become jail bait.

    I hope this makes sense…

  15. Jeanne Byington Said:


    The most suspicious people, in my experience, are the ones who lie the most!

    I think that there are some challenges that are so big that many don’t have the energy to address them. Or they feel that it’s not their place to do anything about them. Or they don’t have any more to say/write than what was already covered. Or they think about it and discuss the subject at dinner, and that’s good.

    NYC had a Mayor who, we learned during the election, had not paid his taxes. Once discovered, he did, but I thought, “Gee, one of his roles is to be a model. I pay my taxes. Why should I look up to someone who does so only when caught having not done so?” A client at the time shrugged and said, “Well, he paid them didn’t he? So who cares?” And the man won the election.

    I guess with some people, it’s a question of degrees…how bad is the lie? [And I’m not talking about the white kind.] I’m with you. Just don’t. It’s so much easier.

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