It was a tagline on House, M.D., the television show in which a doctor had to navigate a web of illusions and untruths to diagnose mysterious maladies. Dr. House listened to what patients had to say, but he never trusted it until he proved it himself.
Scientific research has demonstrated that everybody lies. Part of the social contract that keeps society functioning includes a network of small lies, starting with “How are you?” and “Fine, thank you.” We have all agreed to suspend disbelief, to a certain extent, in the context of social niceties.
Additional research shows that everyone lies on the internet especially, and that the more anonymous the online setting, the more likely people are to lie. This is bad news for virtual worlds, which are basically anonymous. Apart from the element of fantasy, for instance making one’s avatar look different from one’s real-life self, the anonymity of the virtual world makes it easy for us to invent stories and conceal truth.
I think about this a lot when I perceive that I am being lied to. I rarely confront someone about it, nor do I let on that I realize they are lying. But I do think about it. Most of all, I wonder: Why? Why are they lying to me?
There can be a lot of answers to that question. Personally, I sometimes lie to preserve my privacy. When writing online profiles I usually say that I live in NYC. I don’t. I live near NYC, and I do spend time there, but I don’t live there. I don’t really want strangers to know where I live. I think that is a fairly smart lie and I doubt many would disagree.
“Privacy lies” like this happen when someone is pressuring you to reveal something about yourself that is actually none of their business. When someone lies to me, I wonder whether the person perceives me to be prying, and is trying to protect his or her privacy. In other words, is the lie basically a way of telling me to back off? I can understand that.
People also may lie to protect themselves from punishment. “Self-preservation lies” may happen when we have done something we weren’t supposed to do, or when we have not done something that we were supposed to do. If someone tells me a lie because they don’t want me to be angry at them, I can accept that. But I am still disappointed that I have been lied to. It indicates the presence of a basic rift in my relationship with that person, and it makes me sad that they do not trust me with the truth.
Then there is the “I didn’t want to hurt your feelings” lie. Sometimes this type of lie is actually compassionate, or at least benign, like when he assures her that she doesn’t look fat in those pants. But this type of lie can also be an attempt to cover up something that is extremely hurtful. It makes me anxious, wondering: what is this thing that would hurt my feelings? Just how hurtful is it?
Although I can forgive many lies, without knowing the reason why someone is lying to me, my imagination has to juggle all the possibilities. It’s exhausting. On one hand, I want to be compassionate if the person has good reason to protect their privacy. On the other hand, part of me wonders whether something hurtful is being concealed. And then I begin to wonder why the person does not trust me enough to be honest.
So, in the end, even benign lies leave me with inner turmoil, hurt feelings, sadness, disappointment and suspicion.
But since everybody lies, I suppose the burden falls on me to cope with it.