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The Strangest Species / Behavior

The Truth About Lying: Why We Do It and When It Might Be OK

March 10, 1998|KATHLEEN KELLEHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Two teenage girlfriends were having dinner at one of the girls' homes when the parents confronted their daughter with a prescription that suggested she had had an abortion. The face-off was eclipsed when their daughter's friend confessed that she was the one who had done it.

The girl was lying to protect her friend. She enhanced her lie with a detailed description of her "experience" and endured the anger of her own family, who discovered what she had said.

And then, according to the account as reported to a research psychologist, the lying girl's parents chose not to reveal the truth, making yet a larger circle of deception.

"People tell these serious lies to protect something when the truth could threaten something they really value," says Bella De Paulo, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, who reported the story of the adolescent girls in a study asking people to reveal the most serious lies they ever told.

In this case, the girls' friendship took precedence over truth. "Lies told out of loyalty could be an effort to secure, deepen or protect a relationship," De Paulo says. "It does create a special bond between people when someone tells a lie to protect another."

Lying out of loyalty is so common that there is much speculation that people close to President Clinton might be doing so to shield him against current accusations about his sexual activities. The stakes can be high. In legal cases, lying can lead to perjury prosecutions. In an extreme testing of allegiance, the choice of truth or a lie can be a life-or-death matter, as in the case of David Kaczynski, who turned in his Unabomber brother.

Under the cloak of loyalty, says ethicist Sissela Bok, author of "Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life" (Vintage Press, 1978), people have succeeded in getting their families to cover up crimes such as tax evasion and fraud. "It often involves a powerful person pressuring a less powerful person," she says, "and sometimes people lie out of love."

In rare cases, Bok offers, lying is justifiable. "It is different when an innocent life is at stake," says Bok. "The extreme case is protecting someone who is being hunted by a would-be killer and they say, 'Where is your friend?' An example is World War II and the Gestapo."

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Most lying out of loyalty does not involve criminal charges or life-threatening situations but falls under the broad category of "altruistic lies," says De Paulo, including polite social deceptions aimed at protecting the feelings of others--"Dinner was fabulous." . . . "You look great." . . . "I understand completely."

"The motivation to tell these lies is to spare a person's feelings," says De Paulo. "Other reasons are to make the relationship better." (These altruistic lies are most common among women. Men are more likely to tell self-aggrandizing lies, according to De Paulo's research.)

We tend to lie to those closest to us, De Paulo found. In her study, college students admitted lying to their mothers in one out of two conversations. Dating couples said they lied in about a third of their interactions with each other. If lying seems to come so naturally it is only because, well, it is natural. "Parents teach their children explicitly to lie," says Michael Lewis, a distinguished professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick, N.J., and children lie for many of the same reasons as adults. The first lie learned is to protect the feelings of others--as in, "I love the pinochle card game, Grandma. I really do." Lying to avoid punishment or to cover up for a friend are other prevarications we learn early in life, he says.

"Indirect loyalty" is how De Paulo describes serious lies told to cover up for a friend's misdeed or mishap. In her study, reported at the American Psychological Assn.'s annual conference in the summer, a common cause of lying among boys was wrecking a car. In one case, when the teenager who was driving didn't have a license, the other took the blame. "We do lie to meet other people's expectations, and it can be hard to say no to friends," she says.

Perhaps the hardest person to say no to is the one signing your paycheck. A national survey of more than 2,000 secretaries in the U.S. and Canada found that 85% say they tell lies on the telephone (the boss is gone, when she is sitting right there); 58% have lied about their boss' whereabouts to someone face to face; 17% have notarized a document without witnessing the signature; and 10% have done a Fawn Hall--removed or destroyed damaging records.

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Nan DeMars, a former secretary who teaches ethics seminars, says, "These are power issues. They lie because partly they are intimidated and they are afraid of losing their job." However, she says, it may be more difficult for a secretary who likes her boss to refrain from lying. "Lying does show loyalty beyond the norm, although it may be misdirected."

In ethicist Bok's view, the lie to protect another is the most troubling. "Lying can be done out of loyalty . . . out of self-interest . . . out of pressure and maybe even fear of what kind of revenge you have wrought. And it can also be out of friendship and love. But there is a real question as to what a true friend would do if asked to lie for somebody."

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