Truth, Lies, and Us

A story on Good Morning America caught my eye.  At the University of Central Florida, Professor Richard Quinn discovered that one third–200 of 600 of his students–had received advance copies of an exam. He gave his students an ultimatum: all would have to retake the exam, and those who cheated needed to come forward and confess. Those who confessed would be offered a way to make it right. Those guilty parties who did not confess…well, their names would be given to academic affairs who might then take disciplinary action.

In the video, the professor is extremely upset, and clearly feels betrayed by the cheaters. Students interviewed agreed with him…except for one, Konstantin Ravvin, who thought it was much ado about nothing. He is quoted as saying, “This is college. Everyone cheats, everyone cheats in life in general.”

Well, I guess we know which group Konstantin falls into!

Most of us feel cheating is wrong, whether on an exam, or in a marriage, and most of us don’t like lying, whether by politicians, our spouses, our children, or our car repair person. At the same time, most of us would confess to lying, some of the time, anyway. Those who won’t confess are lying. Most of us have rules about when its okay to lie. No, those horizontal stripes don’t make you look fat. Yes, I love this unflattering and cheap-looking sweater you gave me for Christmas. Some lies we forgive fairly easily, because we have told similar lies ourselves…maybe calling in sick to work, or saying the dog ate our homework, or that the check really is in the mail. Sometimes we expect at best a creative rendition of the truth, as when someone is trying to sell us something.

I think we understand why people (including ourselves) lie, and that is why we don’t always get in too big a huff about it. We do get upset at cheating situation above, because it is unfair to the two-thirds who didn’t cheat. If a spouse cheats–well, let’s face it, we’re going to be plenty upset whether he/she is lying about it or not. And again, even the most honest of us feel the need to at least fudge the truth now and again.

We don’t want to get caught. We want to be elected. We don’t want to be shamed. We don’t want to suffer consequences. We don’t want to be yelled at. We don’t want to give our money to the government. We want to avoid conflict and other unpleasant situations. We want the benefits, without having to pay the price. It’s no mystery why people lie. The mystery is this: with lying so rampant, why do we ever believe each other?

People routinely believe TV political ads, internet solicitations, lying family members, and weight loss ads. Okay, we don’t all believe all of it all the time, but I’ll certainly admit to being tripped up on occasion. Why? What draws me in?

In the case of someone close to me lying, I value the connection, and do not want to believe that I am not valued enough to rate the truth. It is easier to believe what is said than to believe the alternative–that the connection with me is not equally valued, that I am someone to be brushed off with a lie.  In the case of political ads, I want to believe that there is a clear choice, and that there is a right and a wrong candidate. I long for the certainty of right action. In the case of the weight-loss pitch, I want to believe that there are clear steps I can take to improve my life, that there is an easy answer. In the case of internet solicitations, I really could use that $10,000 Bill Gates is going to send me for forwarding an email to all my friends.

We believe lies for the same reasons we tell them: To preserve our connection to those close to us-to not offend them. To get money or to avoid losing money. To avoid shame or achieve success. To achieve certainty–that we know the truth, that we are nobody’s fool.

I am afraid that when it comes to lying, we are all each other’s fools.

There’s a bright side, which is that, a lot of the time, we do deal truthfully and honorably with each other. And when we are taken in, well, maybe we aren’t fools. Maybe we’re the sort of people who tell the truth whenever possible, and so believe others are telling the truth to us. We see the upside of truth-telling, and the downside of lying.

When we lie, we create a barrier between ourselves and the person we are lying to. Now, if this is someone we will never see again, maybe we don’t care. If this is our boss, maybe we should. If this is our child or our spouse, we most certainly should care. Most of the time, when we lie to others, we justify to ourselves that it was okay, even necessary, to lie. In our justifications, we lie to ourselves. Once we start lying to ourselves, we start to go a little crazy.

But those horizontal stripes don’t make you look fat. Really. Trust me on that.

(Below is a link to the GMA segment on the cheating at UCF)



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