Today Is Honesty Day

Today is Honesty Day.   I challenge you to engage in some self-experimentation and see how long you can go without lying today.   From a February Washington Post article:

Ordinary people tell about two lies every 10 minutes, with some people getting in as many as a dozen falsehoods in that period. … liars tend to be more popular than honest people. … A lot of research shows that serious lies are almost always told with the best of intentions. …  Saxe found in one experiment that nearly 85 percent of college students had lied in the course of a romantic relationship, most often about another relationship. (These were lies that people voluntarily admitted to Saxe, which means the actual number of lies and liars was probably higher.) Nearly to a person, the liars said they were trying to protect the feelings of someone they cared about. …

DePaulo once conducted a study in which she asked people to recall the worst lie they had ever told and the worst lie ever told to them. … many young people reported that the worst lie ever told to them was by a parent who concealed news that someone they loved was sick or dying. By contrast, DePaulo found, parents never thought of such deceptions as particularly serious ethical breaches — in fact, they saw them as acts of love.

We lie to ourselves, telling ourselves that we lie to protect others, but those others are not nearly as grateful as we think. 

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  • Honesty Day

    Today is Honesty Day. Robin Hanson asks us to indulge in some self-experimentation, to see how long we can go without lying. OK. Polly Toynbee is the finest columnist in the country. No, really, she is. The judges called Toynbee

  • Stuart Armstrong

    I’ve lied in the past to protect other’s feelings – and justified it by saying that the person being lied to would not find out the truth. And, narrowly, it was the right thing to do – if they didn’t find out, then I had sucessfully shielded their feelings, their reactions told me so.

    But I was overconfident in my ability to hide the truth, and got really burned from that. The road to hell is paved with overconfidence in your good intentions…

  • It would seem that the devil in the details of “white lies” (and not-so white ones also, sometimes) is this not getting caught. That is the problem with the lying about the sick relative to kids one, although maybe the parents are hoping the relative will recover. But once the relative dies, well, the parents are outed.

    The trickier part is the story in WaPo this morning, quoting Robert Trivers on self-deception. The most effective liars have succeeded in lying to themselves. They do not realize that they are lying. Are these included in those stats listed about two lies every ten minutes and so forth? My guess is no, because no one will report them as lies, even the person who wishes to be honest to a researcher about their own lying.

  • conchis

    “We lie to ourselves, telling ourselves that we lie to protect others, but those others are not nearly as grateful as we think.”

    While not wishing to engage in too much self-justification, it’s also possible that when we are lied to, we are not as grateful as we should be. It strikes me that we’re likely both to overestimate our ability to handle the truth, and possibly also to misjudge the extent to which others’ lies are motivated self-interest.

  • Tyler Cowen

    The last part of your post is uncharacteristically unHansonesque. The others are often very grateful for those lies, they simply have to pretend that they are not.

  • Conchis and Tyler, you are both of course right; we are not as grateful as we should be about lies we are told.

  • Telnar

    A big part of the reason why so many lies occur is the social expectation that questions are answered. When deciding how to respond to a question where the answer believes that the truth will be harmful (either to the asker or to answerer), most people don’t have the credible option of saying “no comment” (or words to that effect).

    If one wants that ability when it matters, though, it’s important to use it with reasonable frequency when it doesn’t matter (i.e. when the answer would have been innocuous). That’s not an option which appeals to most people — perhaps because they mind lying less than they mind making it explicit that they have no intention of always telling the whole truth.

  • I obviously can’t count self-deceptions, but I don’t consciously lie anywhere near this often. It’s hard for me to remember the last time I deliberately told a knowing lie – usually it happens because my lips move too quickly, and afterward I mentally kick myself and think “Why the hell did I just lie about something so completely trivial?”

    Of course, this also means having conversations like:

    Person: “Hi! How are you doing?”
    Me: “Hi!” (No other response.)

    I’m also not counting conscious omissions of information, which would happen a lot more often.

    Tyler, Robin, Conchis, you’re making an unjustified moral leap. We should, if we are honest, admit that we are probably not as good at handling the truth as we think, and that we were happier (at the time) to be lied to than we want to admit. But this doesn’t mean that as a moral decision, we should be more grateful. It means that we should work on increasing our truth-tolerance and lie-intolerance, so that, having improved, we would no longer have even a short-term hedonic benefit to tempt us to gratitude.

    Even where you have trouble admitting the short-term hedonic utility you derive from something shameful, it doesn’t imply that if you fully admitted the short-term hedonic utility then it would necessarily outweigh all other consequences and moral beliefs. So you may genuinely have no net benefit to be grateful for.

  • Eliezer, you might try to record yourself and then go back carefully to evaluate how truthful was each thing you said. If most people don’t believe that they lie this much, then most must be underestimating their lies, and you may be also.

  • michael vassar

    Alternatively, the Washington Post might not be infallible. I’ve noticed, from time to time, that newspaper statistics that don’t pass the smell test really are usually worthless.

  • michael vassar

    The post also didn’t say anything about variance.

  • conchis

    Eliezer, with minor reservations regarding the semantics of gratefulness (which I personally don’t think of as a moral choice), I agree with the thrust of your advice. We should work to increase both our truth-tolerance and lie-intolerance (at least provided that lie-intolerance refers primarily to how we act rather than how we feel; otherwise I think we have the potential to make ourselves unnecessarily unhappy).

  • Douglas Knight

    The others are often very grateful for those lies, they simply have to pretend that they are not.

    It seems to me like a pretty good revealed-preference test of people’s reaction to lies. At the very least, the lies were memorable. Maybe social pressure forced people to make a note that the lies were hurtful, but that seems pretty close to the lies actually hurting them.

  • contrarian

    How many people told their children that they were ugly on Honesty Day?

  • Doug S.

    I hold myself to a strict standard of honesty: I never tell a lie I don’t believe.

    (I’ll omit relevant information and make misleading true statements, but you won’t catch me lying!)