Lying

We’ve been hearing a lot about lying lately.  Apparently lying is en vogue these days.

Our president thinks the media lies. Fact checkers prove that our president lies with every breath he takes. Michael Flynn neglected to tell the VP about something he did and had to resign as a result.

Some however would question whether Michael Flynn actually lied. They will say he merely omitted giving information. 

I had a conversation about this with a friend. My friend believes that the omission is not a lie. I was told that as long as the precise question is not asked, there is no lie. Merely not speaking the truth is okay. I take some comfort that my friend did use a fair amount of word salad to say that, hopefully an indication that he is trying to believe it but not quite sure himself. In a later conversation,  this person said that he didn’t lie, he just left out part of the story.

But this conversation wasn’t sitting well with me. It felt very false. How can the obfuscation not be a lie? How do you trust what the person is telling you knowing it may not be the entire truth?  As usual, I have taken the time to think about it and do a little research as well and now I’m blogging (or at least journaling) about it.

As a law student you are taught early on about the difference between lies of commission (speaking outright lies) and lies by omission. You are taught that in some circumstances,  a failure to act (or speak) is as bad as acting. Similarly, omitting an important fact that would be incriminating is as bad as lying to avoid saying something incriminating. 

I’m not a Christian but the New Testament is very clear that a lie by omission is sin. I can only assume that our law, based on biblical morality, sees lies by omission as unlawful because of the biblical command to not lie or bear false witness.

So what is lying by omission and is it really lying? A lie by omission is an indirect lie. You are lying by omission when you deliberately leave out important information which gives others a misconception of what is really going on.

The most obvious example is a married person having an affair and the married person doesn’t say “I’m working late” but lets the other spouse believe that’s why he’s coming home so late. Then the married person goes out on a date while his spouse waits at home thinking loving spouse is hard at work. 

In my friend’s viewpoint, as long as the spouse doesn’t  specifically ask “honey are you cheating on me?,” forcing a “yes,” there is no lie. However, I think the spouse left in the dark will feel that this “don’t ask, don’t tell” moment needs to be called what it is. A lie. And a betrayal.Research bears this out as I will explain later. Plus you need to know to ask the right question!

Perhaps a better description of this person is “deceiver”. A deceiver is a person who willingly deceives another day in and day out and seems comfortable with doing it. 

There’s a similar form of deception, called paltering. A palterer  strings together a series of essentially truthful statements to create a false impression. This is most used to describe politicians and advertisers.

This Dilbert cartoon is a perfect example of lies of omission .

How  does this person look another person they are deceiving in the eye every single day and not feel that he is lying? 

I know I couldn’t do that without great discomfort and a lot of lost sleep. That discomfort is called cognitive dissonance. 

People however are capable of great mental gymnastics to make themselves feel better about their lying and some will go to great lengths to pull the wool over your eyes. Some people will even change their beliefs to avoid any discomfort they feel at telling lies. By changing their beliefs, they are no longer lying! 

Should you trust someone that is adept at omission/deception? George Orwell said that “the omission is the most powerful form of lie”. Research in the field shows that all this lying is damaging to relationships.

A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology determined that a person who is  lied to by omission didn’t feel any better than one told an outright lie. The person feels just as betrayed and believes the behavior is just as unethical. 

In a study published in Cognition, MIT scientists revealed that if you lie by omission to children, they are adept at telling that you have not told them the truth and will stop trusting the information you give them from that point on. Apparently, kids are really astute! The shame is that as we get older we seem to lose that inate intelligence (and wind up spending a few hours researching and writing blog posts about it).

In other words, trust is eroded. 

How do you get that trust back? I don’t have an answer for that. Once you know someone is a deceiver, can you trust that person?  How do you know the person is not going to willingly deceive you even if you haven’t been on the receiving end of deception thus far?

Perhaps, though, the words of a wise friend will offer some food for thought. She opined that when a person shows you who he (or she) is, believe it. Don’t discount it. In other words, a person that deceives so easily and doesn’t seem to lose sleep over it should be approached with caution. Their words may not be dripping with lies but the omissions, those words unsaid, are suspect. Be vigilant. Proceed with caution.

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