Deceitful Minds

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"Truth telling is morally overrated," says david nyberg, professor of philosophy and education at the State University of New York, Buffalo, and author of The Varnished Truth: Truth Telling and Deceiving in Ordinary Life. "Being against all deception is as wrong-minded as loathing all bacteria--including the ones responsible for wine and cheese. A lifetime of relationships is inconceivable without deception." Nyberg is articulating a truth many prefer to ignore: dissembling can be good for you. After all, who hasn't lied to a friend to spare them the awful truth about their new haircut? Who hasn't lied to themselves to cope with fear or ease the pain of unrequited love?

German anthropologist Volker Sommer, author of In Praise of Lying, believes that self-deception can even be a matter of survival. He cites a study carried out by psychologist Richard Lazarus of the University of California at Berkeley that showed patients who repressed thoughts of an upcoming operation--in other words, people who deceived themselves about the seriousness of their condition--suffered fewer post-operative complications than patients who dwelt on the hazards of the surgery. In a separate study of 69 patients with breast cancer, Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania found that five years after mastectomy, 75% of the women who had denied their illness were still alive and healthy as compared to only 35% of those who had resigned themselves to their fate. This suggests that believing something is true may be the first step to making it so.

Most lies, however, are told simply to avoid trouble, according to social psychologist Peter Stiegnitz of the University of Budapest, author of Lying: The Spice of Life. His surveys show that most falsehoods, about 41%, seek to conceal misbehavior ("Yes, I was working late last night"), while another 14% are the little white lies that make social life possible ("I'd love to come to dinner, but I've got a prior commitment that evening"). The rest, Stiegnitz says, have to do with everything from wanting to be loved to sheer laziness and, in most cases, the lies are harmless.

Stiegnitz also found that men lie roughly 20% more often than women--but that women are better at it. Yet, "Falseness as a stain on the female character is more deeply ingrained in the heads of men than calcium deposits on a washing machine's heating element," says Catharina Lohmann, author of Women Lie Differently. According to Lohmann, the difference between male and female mendacity is qualitative rather than quantitative. "Women lie more readily [in social situations] than men because they are more sensitive," she says. "Why hurt another person with the truth when a polite lie could boost their ego?" Lohmann's recent survey of the literature on lying reveals that women tend to be dishonest in their private lives, usually to protect their children or their friends, while men mislead where their careers are concerned. "A man deceives for profit and egotism," Lohmann claims. "He lies most cleverly and effectively ... at the levers of power." "Be honest about lying," Stiegnitz counsels. "Don't stop doing it, but acknowledge that you are doing it." Sage advice. But is it too good to be true?

Reported by Ursula Sautter/Bonn