Are all liars being deceitful?
Don’t you have to be one or the other: honest or dishonest, a liar or a truthful person? As I see it, no. An honest liar doesn’t claim to be telling the truth and, therefore, can justifiably reject later accusations of being deceitful. Unfortunately, such a painfully simple concept rarely occurs in the real world. Think about it: How many people do you know who start with the disclosure, “I’m not claiming to be telling you the truth,” before continuing their narrative? We would guess very, very few of us (and if you do know someone, we’d love to hear more).
Do we want honest liars in our lives?
Before we go any further, it’s important to recognize that there are some instances in which an honest liar is what we want. Take professional actors, for instance: they don’t inform us of intentionally trying to mislead us but we know that that’s the goal. In fact, the more convincing the performance, the better! When working on Lie to Me, actors were coached to ensure their facial expressions, especially micro expressions, were portrayed accurately. (Fun fact: Tim Roth was not a fan of these lessons… but you can read more about my experiences on set here.)
So, why is it that we can accept some honest liars and not others? What about people who believe the lies they are telling are actually true? Does that make them honest or liars?
Using actors as our example again, no harm is done by the theatrical liar because we collectively accept that their intention is to entertain us, not exploit us. Intent is the crucial issue in not only distinguishing the liar from the honest liar (like an entertainer) but also from those who lie to spare us unwelcome news or hurt feelings. Unfortunately, intentions are not always obvious and, even if they appear to be, they can be falsely claimed with no way to objectively verify. “I didn’t mean to” is easy to say even when it was deliberately meant. How are we to know?
We live based on mutually agreed upon facts, but facts are not always mutually agreed upon. When that happens, there may not be an objective third party who can rule on what is what. Is plausibility a sufficient criterion to identify lies? Not if we acknowledge that very implausible actions do sometimes occur. Even though it might be rare does not mean it could not have happened.
To trust or not to trust?
Unsurprisingly, people who are naturally more trusting are misled more often than those who err on the side of caution or tend to be more suspicious. Those naturally-trusting individuals are seen as easy targets and it can be very tempting to the unscrupulous. Even though it makes us vulnerable, I believe we have to trust each other if we want peace of mind.
As the saying goes, “What you don’t know can’t hurt you,” and, to an extent, I find this to be true. Research shows that people who trust live happier and longer lives than their suspicious counterparts. However, that research did not determine how often the trusting individuals were actually misled or exploited without knowing, making it impossible to really know which of the two is the “better” stance because the reality is this: If you’re overly trusting, you risk being misled. If you’re overly suspicious, you risk not believing a truthful person.
So, you have to decide which risk do you want to take?
Moderation is the key.