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Sam Harris

“Lies beget other lies. Unlike statements of fact, which require no further work on our part, lies must be continually protected from collisions with reality. When you tell the truth, you have nothing to keep track of. The world itself becomes your memory, and if questions arise, you can always point others back to it… In this way, a commitment to the truth is naturally purifying of error.

But the liar must remember what he said, and to whom, and must take care to maintain his falsehoods in the future. This can require an extraordinary amount of work—all of which comes at the expense of authentic communication and free attention. The liar must weigh each new disclosure, whatever the source, to see whether it might damage the facade that he has built. And all these stresses accrue, whether or not anyone discovers that he has been lying.

Tell enough lies, however, and the effort required to keep your audience in the dark quickly becomes unsustainable. While you might be spared a direct accusation of dishonesty, many people will conclude, for reasons that they might be unable to pinpoint, that they cannot trust you. You will begin to seem like someone who is always dancing around the facts—because you most certainly are. Many of us have known people like this. No one ever quite confronts them, but everyone begins to treat them like creatures of fiction. Such people are often quietly shunned, for reasons they probably never understand.

In fact, suspicion often grows on both sides of a lie: Research indicates that liars trust those they deceive less than they otherwise might—and the more damaging their lies, the less they trust, or even like, their victims. It seems that in protecting their egos, and interpreting their own behavior as justified, liars tend to deprecate the people they lie to.”

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From Sam Harris’s short e-book Lying.

At a mere 26 pages, this essay is an extremely rewarding and challenging read — one that will recalibrate how you process truth-telling and even the minor dishonesties we all encounter in the course of daily life. Harris’s essential thesis is as daunting as it is simple: we should prefer to be awkward or even impolite rather than dishonest.

Read on:

  • Also from Lying, Harris levels on why personal integrity matters
  • Confucius, asked what to look for in our leaders, stresses honesty first…
  • Barnes offers a devastating paragraph on a friend whose dishonesty eroded her identity