“Honesty is the best policy” is an idiom that pervades countless childhoods and cautionary tales. It may seem like a throwback in today’s age of fake news and alternative facts. Yet, sometimes, it’s all too tempting to lie our way out of trouble, or to bend the truth enough to avoid hurting someone else. So, which is it? Is honesty really the best policy, or are there reasons to question this well-acknowledged phrase?
Here are three reasons to stick with the truth, and three reasons why bending the truth on occasion is acceptable.
Honesty is the Best Policy
Anyone who has told a lie knows the uncomfortable feelings of guilt that may soon follow the fib. Not being honest can often have unintended consequences, and if those consequences are worse than we anticipate, we are prone to feeling incredibly distressed. There’s no way around this; even telling half-truths can actually be worse than lying outright, studies from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology show. “Partial confessors” feel higher regret, guilt and shame than do “full confessors” of a lie. Consequently, other research points to improved physical and mental health following reductions in lie-telling. It’s a no-brainer; honesty is the best policy. So, stick with honesty, and your mental health will remain in much better shape.
Lying is a tangled web, and it’s hard to stop lying once you’ve started. Take Donald Trump. At last count, he told a record 20,000 misleading or false claims while in office. Studies done in the experimental psychology department of University College London show that lying one time makes it physically easier to lie in the future. This is because while we experience initial conflict when trodding on the truth, this discomfort subsides over time, making it easier to be dishonest and serve our own self-interests. Yet, the more lies we tell, the harder it is to unravel the web; the odds of getting caught are high, which means we’re risking severely negative consequences if discovered – like ruining our reputation and reducing the chance of others trusting us in the future.
Honesty = reliability
Society is built on trust. We go to stores expecting clerks to give us the true prices of merchandise. We believe food is okay to eat when there’s an expiration date listed by a reliable company. Trustworthy communities allow people to work together, communicate effectively and openly engage with “the other.” Building trust by separating fact from fiction is especially important today when communities may be wary about receiving the coronavirus vaccine. This shows how if honesty weren’t a basic tenet of society, whole chunks of our social fabric would crumble. Look no further than the Flint water crisis in Michigan as an example of dishonesty posing health risks to society; thousands of people were lied to about the unhealthy, lead-ridden state of their water, and many got sick as a result. This also applies on an individual level; lying kills relationships, where honesty protects integrity. Bearing this in mind, honesty is the best policy – it is also the necessary one.
Other Policies are Better
While honesty is often hailed as a virtue, our motivation for truth-telling is often more self-serving than it is pure. Sitting on a pent-up thought can be difficult to do, and we may feel great relief in letting go of our secrets, no matter at what cost. In fact, social media has exacerbated this self-indulgence by giving people a platform through which to share. It may also force intimacy of their every innermost thought and feeling – ones that everyone else may not want to hear about. Rather than accepting from the get-go that honesty is the best policy, we should evaluate every situation and question whether our motives are pure in telling the truth.
Little white lie
She doesn’t really want to hear that she looks fat; he would like to continue believing that his joke was funny. The white lie – a small lie told to avoid hurting a person’s feelings – originated somewhere, and for good reason: Not everyone is prepared to hear the truth. In fact, honesty can wound the people closest to us; sometimes, it doubles as a subtle form of assault, by allowing us to unload our angry feelings onto our loved ones through lashing out with true – yet brutal – criticism. In the long run, this kind of honesty may harm our relationships more than it will benefit them.
Benefits of deception
People often derive joy from being deceived. Kids adore hearing stories about Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy; movie-goers enjoy films the most when the acting is believable. In fact, celebrities win prestigious awards for faking identities and emotions. In addition to the entertainment factor, however, deception often puts us at ease. Imagine the panic that would have ensued if, for example, Americans had known how close they were to war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In fact, research on dishonesty in the workplace corroborates the important and calming effects of lying; it found that duplicity can both help breed trust during difficult times and boost morale. While lying may not be the best policy, it benefits us enough to lose the bad rap.
The Bottom Line: Complete honesty can preserve relationships and keep society peaceful, yet there are instances in which a little fibbing may be required to put out potential social fires. What’s your best policy – honesty, or something else?