As children, we were taught that lying is bad and ‘honesty is the best policy’. We were reprimanded when we lied to our teachers or parents, and rewarded for speaking the truth. The habit of being truthful may have stuck with many of us for the better part of our early years. But as we grew up, we may have realised that life is complicated for absolute honesty.
At least in the world of grown-ups, it is fair to say that everybody lies. Even those of us who lead honest, respectable lives might admit to uttering white lies once in a while–perhaps to get out of a tight spot, to avoid embarrassment or to protect someone’s feelings. A study published by the American Psychological Association goes so far as to say that “lying is a fact of daily life”. The two-part study involved focus groups of college students and community members. “Participants in the community study, on the average, told a lie every day; participants in the college student study told two,” it says. The seriousness of these lies, however, is a different question. As the study itself points out, graver lies about important matters were fewer and far between.
It is safe to say that a majority of us lie about unimportant things on a regular basis. However, it might be harder for us to lie about important things, especially to those who are close to us, as it may come with severe consequences. There are, of course, exceptions to the norm. Some people feel the need to tell white lies often, even to their loved ones. They are identified as compulsive or pathological liars. While this is not a psychological condition per se and cannot be properly diagnosed, it may be the result of other conditions such as narcissistic or Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).
It is easy to think smaller lies are “normal” and more acceptable. But scientists have discovered that every lie, small or big, causes changes in the brain. Says Dr B N Gangadhar, director of National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), “The guilt that comes with lying leads to stress. This leads to the excitement of amygdala–which is the emotional core of the brain–and as a result, a cascade of adverse reactions may occur in the body.”