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What’s the point of a lie when everyone knows we’re lying? Why do we often resign to lies we’re told, aware of their falsehood? When it comes to our habits of dishonesty, it’s not always clear why we behave the way we do. As early as 395 A.D., Augustine of Hippo started questioning the intention of a lie and contemplating what constitutes a true liar — is it one who “wished to say a false thing?” Or “the other, because he wished to deceive?” Today, even still, our motives remain unclear. Particularly when technology makes us all the more liable to getting caught red-handed.
I asked my friends once “why didn’t you tag us in your Instagram story?” after they had posted a photo of our group excursion including some but not all group members’ names. Surprised by confrontation, they averted their eyes and scrambled to explain with variations of “can I edit it? I will try to add you guys!” They pleaded innocence while feigning to address the action and without actually doing so.
Being excluded from the post was far less insulting than the dismissive comments that followed. Within a group of well-educated students, albeit overly educated on the topic of social media, their excuses were flimsy. It’s elementary knowledge for the majority of those our age, and for my avid Instagramming friends especially, that a story can’t be edited after it’s posted. For them to lie — to suggest they didn’t know how to operate the app — was patronizing.
Excuses surrounding online actions are familiar to us all. People tell us they didn’t get our texts, emails, didn’t see our social media requests. The list goes on. We imagine our communications symbolically “got lost in the mail,” for the sake of moving on. It’s hard to actually believe that, though, when we know this “mail” is an advanced network viewable from anywhere on earth by so much as glancing at our watches – not one that runs on pieces of paper getting torn or lost.
Of course, we’re flooded with so much information daily, it’s perfectly possible some things go unseen. I’m not criticizing people for being busy. But, when we start pointing fingers at hackers for inappropriate posts, for example — when we blame the internet for our faults or forgotten tasks, we offend those on the receiving end. Not because of the mistake itself, but because of the underestimation of others’ intelligence. We all know just how glued we are to our phones and laptops. On many platforms, we can literally see when others are active, invasive as this is. We are so ultra-connected, we know so much, that excuses lose validity. They become lies.
I have lied. We all have. We do so very often, according to leading expert on the psychology of lying Bella DePaulo. In a study published by the American Psychological Association, DePaulo reported college students lie in one of their every three social interactions. Through several social experiments, she concluded that lying is an everyday behavior — “a fact of social life”. Our loss of honesty is a natural, in fact healthy, stage of human cognitive development.
DePaulo asserts that we lie for any of several major reasons, including to promote our own image or protect the feelings of others. But lies concerning virtual affairs can be verified far more easily than those pertaining to real life. Lies are only lies when the liar has more information than the person being lied to. The point of a lie is to deceive. If we all have knowledge of it — that the text delivered because our phone tells us so, for example — it defeats the purpose. So my question remains: why do we really do it?
Behavioral economics professor Dan Ariely clarifies our seemingly senseless behavior. He sees lies less as deliberate, discrete actions and more as subtle methods of cheating the system. He says lying is an exercise in cost-benefit analysis. We lie just enough to profit as much as possible while maintaining an honest enough perception of ourselves.
In other words, our lies are ambiguous, so we could get caught but often won’t. We cheat just a little when we say things that are believable enough in our own eyes and those of others. In doing so, we can tell ourselves we’re not bad people. Because honesty feels like a harsher and less convenient choice when it boils down to something like “I didn’t reply to you because I didn’t want to.”
In my situation, there was no way for me to prove my friends genuinely didn’t know they couldn’t edit the post. Similarly, we’ll never log into our email recipient’s account to check if he really didn’t get that email. We have to live with uncertainty, and in the meantime, try to reign in our cynicism. The internet is clouded with strange ambiguity, and as long as we’re lacking evidence, our suspected deception will remain speculation rather than confirmation.
For better or worse, we have internalized that these daily events are mostly minor offenses. We don’t want to make waves or accuse others every time we feel that doubt. But I believe confrontation on this front is occasionally warranted. I don’t regret having been direct with my friends; repressing ourselves when an offense, like exclusion, is clear will only lead to more anxiety. Judging whether confrontation is appropriate, it seems, is just one of our many balancing acts.
All said, it may be unnatural how much we monitor each other. Perhaps we know and share too much. Regardless, engagement requires accountability. We can receive so much information and education from the internet; we can share our lives and connect so easily through social media. These are, no doubt, enormous privileges.
But with great knowledge comes great responsibility. A resource that allows for connection and opportunity is a gift, but we cannot expect to take without giving. Nor can we be selectively accountable. With summer internships, job applications, or schoolwork, we are at our most responsible – we let ourselves down when we fail to be.
Our sense of duty relaxes, though, when it comes to what we owe others. Their disappointment in our actions, or lack thereof, is virtually painless to us when we aren’t looking them in the eyes. And when we are faced with a human rather than a contact, it’s easier to evade conflict altogether. But if we’re capable of one difficult task, we must be of the other. We should grant, if not more, just as much importance to humanity as we do our personal objectives. Ultimately, our own successes will be worthless if we don’t preserve the human relationships that make life truly rich.
So complete honesty is too much to ask for, and it might even go against our nature. Increased accountability and estimation of others, however, especially when we have nothing to gain – now that would be an earnest goal.
Serena G. Pellegrino ’23 is a resident of Lowell House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.
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