When I was a kid, my mother used to tell me that if I ate raw cookie dough I would get worms. For years the image of creepy-crawlies snaking through my intestines was enough to keep my tiny hands from the mixing bowl. I’m sure mom never expected that one day people would start putting the stuff in ice cream (and granola bars and Pop-Tarts and vodka and just about anything else they can think of); and if I called her on it now, she’d probably just chuckle and say that little “white lie” was her way of keeping me from eating things she thought I shouldn’t eat.
My mother wasn’t some pathological liar who got a sick kick out of injecting fearful images of a worm-laden belly into my youthful head. She was a pragmatist; and she was taking part in an elaborate dance performed for decades by the millions of parents who use dishonesty as a learning tool for kids who are too obtuse to benefit from simple truths, or too self-absorbed to listen to them. After all, there’s nothing quite like fear to cut through the egomaniacal clutter of a child’s brain.
Indeed, according to a new study published in the International Journal of Psychology, so-called “instrumental lying” is so effective that it’s one of the few aspects of child rearing everyone seems to agree on. The cross-cultural survey of 200 families found that 84 percent of American, and 98 percent of Chinese parents admit to using dishonesty as a means of teaching a lesson, reinforcing positive actions or preventing negative behavior. The study found that the most common lies involve the exaggerated consequences of misbehavior. These include things like: “If you don’t listen to me, I’ll call the police,” and “If you lose me, a kidnapper will come to take you while I’m gone.”
But parents don’t just lie to scare kids into behaving; there’s also a lot of fibbing to spare a child’s feelings. Then there are the simple lies of encouragement, like telling a kid how great they sounded on the piano when in truth they could barely tap out “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.”
Now, I suspect most parents reading this won’t see anything wrong with perpetrating shams like the Tooth Fairy, or telling a kid that their dead dog is really living on a farm in the country where he has “plenty of space to run around.” And, taken in isolation, a tiny “white lie” to spare a child from a hard truth or impress upon him an important lesson probably isn’t that big a deal. But lies have a funny way of reproducing themselves. And experts like University of Massachusetts psychologist Robert Feldman, author of the book The Liar in Your Life: The Way to Truthful Relationships, would argue that even with the best of intentions, persistent dishonesty has an infectious tendency to corrupt:
“Those little white lies do matter. In and of themselves, white lies can produce interactions that are less intimate and personal. Cumulatively, they create an environment of deception that enhances the probability of larger lies being committed.”
Despite consistently ranking honesty high on a list of admirable character traits, humans have a long history of justifying dishonesty as an acceptable means to a beneficial end. It’s encoded in our DNA. Research shows that the animals most likely to survive in the wild are those that are best at deceiving competitors. In modern life, the need to outsmart predators has been replaced by the need to navigate complex social arrangements—many of which have a direct impact on our financial, social or romantic success—so that we are constantly maneuvering for advantage.
As a result, minor deception has become so ingrained in our culture that we hardly even notice it, and in many cases we have actually come to expect it. According to Feldman, 60 percent of people lie to a stranger at least once during a 10-minute conversation, and most share at least three inaccuracies. Author and “deception detection expert” Pamela Meyer says that on any given day the average person may be lied to anywhere from 10 to 200 times, and one out of every 10 interactions with a spouse is dishonest. Only a fraction of these lies are grounded in malice. For the most part, we stretch the truth to bolster our self-esteem and out of empathy for others. We seem to have an innate compulsion as humans to make ourselves appear better than we are and keep others from feeling bad about themselves. So, we do things like exaggerate our accomplishments, or tell our friend she looks great in that new red dress when she really looks like a clown.
But even this seemingly innocuous deception ultimately causes more harm than good (just ask your friend in the clown dress). It foments distrust in our relationships and creates unspoken barriers between us and everyone we interact with. I’m convinced that if we start being more honest, people will start being more honest with us. We should probably start from the beginning, by being as honest with our kids as reason will allow, instead of teaching them how easy and expedient it is to lie with a straight face. Believe me, they’re going to figure it all out anyway. The truth is only a pint of Ben & Jerry’s away.