Monday January 22, 2018

Born to Lie: Why honesty isn't always the best policy

(Chaloner Woods/Getty Images)

Listen to Full Episode 53:59

No one wants to be called a liar. Or worse, to be caught lying. Yet lying is something we all do, often without even realizing it. IDEAS producer Nicola Luksic looks at our instinct to lie, why we do it, how we teach children to do the same -- and why it can sometimes be a good thing. **This episode originally aired January 13, 2015.

Being honest is one of our most cherished virtues. And yet, people lie all the time. It turns out that lying is part of a complex social survival strategy.

"If we're going to be a thriving society, we have to learn to lie," says Kang Lee, director of the Child Development Research Group at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education in Toronto. "We are social beings and we have to work with others. In some situations, we may have to tell lies to achieve that goal. That's why we should not blindly think that honesty is the only policy."

For the past 20 years, Lee has been studying how and why children develop the ability to lie.

"If you discover your two-year-old is telling a lie, instead of being alarmed, you should celebrate," says Lee. "Kids who lie early, who lie better, are the kids who are going to develop normally."

He found that by age two, about 30% of kids are able to pull off a convincing lie. By age three, about 50% can successfully lie. And by four, about 80% can do it.

He makes a distinction between 'pro-social' lies and malicious ones. Pro-social lies are those that help grease the wheels for positive social interactions. They're otherwise known as 'little white lies'. Kids who aren't able to successfully lie alongside their peers tend to run into problems. 

"These children will tend to tell lies more frequently, and they can be easily spotted," says Lee, adding that this deficit makes socializing much more difficult for them. "The lack of social savvy can make a person develop abnormally."

Radical honesty

This research goes against the core beliefs of 'radical honesty' therapist Brad Blanton. His best-known book is called Radical Honesty: How to Transform Your Life by Telling the Truth. He says if you really love someone, you should tell them exactly what you're thinking and feeling. 

"I recommend you hurt people's feelings," says Blanton. "And I recommend you offend them. And I recommend you stick with them. That way relating to people is much more nourishing than running a protection racket. It's better than being blackmailed by them into protecting their feelings."

His style of therapy teaches people to abandon their instinct to protect loved ones with little white lies.

"We've been taught systematically to lie since childhood," says Blanton. "We've been instructed in how to lie for all these years, and to undo it means to go through some self-correcting in the way you relate to other people."

But Blanton's 'radical honesty' strategy goes against the social grain, according to most researchers. "We have a collective investment in dishonesty," says David Livingstone Smith, a University of New England philosophy professor and author of Why We Lie: The Evolutionary Roots of Deception and the Unconscious Mind.

"Lying oils the wheels of social interaction. A measure of dishonesty isn't optional. It's necessary."

Guests in the program: 

  • Laura Turley - former graphic designer, recent convert to the Radical Honesty philosophy, training to be a counsellor and writes a blog.
  • Brad Blanton - Founder of Radical Honesty, psychotherapist. Author of Radical Honesty: How to Transform your Life by Telling the Truth. Watch his TEDx Talk.  
  • Kang Lee  - Professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. Director of the Child Development Research Group at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. Watch his TEDx Talk.
  • Sarah Zanette - Developmental Psychology PhD student supervised by Kang Lee at the Child Development Research Group, University of Toronto.
  • David Livingstone Smith - Professor of Philosophy, University of New England. Director of The Human Nature Project; and author of Why We Lie: The Evolutionary Roots of Deception and the Unconscious Mind, and Less than Human.

An experiment that tests a child's ability to lie convincingly

Babies: Born To Be Good? (excerpt)2:13

Excerpt from Babies: Born to Be Good? broadcast on The Nature of ThingsBabies: Born to Be Good? is a Stormy Nights Production, produced by Gail McIntyre & Amélie Blanchard and directed and written by Eileen Thalenberg in association with CBC-TV.