book summary: ‘lying’ by sam harris

December 16, 20175 min read

Everyone lies frequently, in the form of exaggerating and ‘white’ lies to avoid hurting someone’s feelings or to avoid social conflict. Telling the truth is awkward and difficult, but it’s worth the upsides: increased trust and authenticity, and an improved ability to notice and fix errors.

White Lies

“Research suggests that all forms of lying –including while lies meant to spare feelings– are associated with less satisfying relationships.”

Telling the truth kindly

“You can be honest and kind, because your purpose in telling the truth is not to offend people. You simply want them to have the information you have and would want to have if you were in their shoes.”

Telling the truth reveals fake friendships

“You might find that some of your friendships are not really that–perhaps you habitually lie to avoid making plans, or fail to express your true opinions for fear of conflict. You might find that certain relationships cannot be honestly maintained.”

Telling the truth brings dysfunction to the surface, so it can be dealt with

“Honesty can force any dysfunction in your life to the surface. Are you in an abusive relationship? A refusal to lie to others–How did you get that bruise?–would oblige you to come to grips with this situation very quickly. Do you have a problem with drugs or alcohol? Lying is the lifeblood of addiction. If we have no recourse to lies, our lives can unravel only so far without others’ noticing.”

“Do I look fat in this?” and other touchy subjects

“But let’s imagine the truth is harder to tell: Your friend looks fat in that dress, or any dress, because she is fat. Let’s say she is also thirty-five years old and single, and you know that her greatest desire is to get married and start a family. You also believe that many men would be disinclined to date her at her current weight. And, marriage aside, you are confident that she would be happier and healthier, and would feel better about herself, if she got in shape…A white lie is simply a denial of these realities. It is a refusal to offer honest guidance in a storm. Even on so touchy a subject, lying seems a clear failure of friendship. By reassuring your friend about her appearance, you are not helping her to do what you think she should do to get what she wants out of life.”

“Imagine that you have a friend who has spent years striving unsuccessfully to build a career as an actor…[but] he is a terrible actor…What do you say the next time he complains about his stalled career? Do you encourage him to ‘just keep at it’? False encouragement is a kind of theft: It steals time, energy, and motivation that a person could put toward some other purpose.”

Lying erodes trust

“Jessica recently overheard her friend Lucy telling a white lie…Lucy’s excuse was entirely fictitious–something involving her child being sick–but she lied so effortlessly and persuasively that Jessica was left wondering if she had ever been deceived by Lucy in the past. Now, whenever Lucy cancels a plan, Jessica suspects she might not be telling the truth. Such tiny erosions of trust are especially insidious because they are almost never remedied. Lucy has no reason to think that Jessica has a grievance against her–because she doesn’t. She simply does not trust her as much as she used to, having heard her lie without compunction to another friend.”

Big lies + political lies

“Lying has prolonged or precipitated wars: The Gulf of Tonkin incident in Vietnam and false reports of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq were both instances in which lying (at some level) led to armed conflict that might otherwise not have occurred. When the truth finally emerged, vast numbers of people grew more cynical about U.S. foreign policy–and many have come to doubt the legitimacy of any military intervention, whatever the stated motive.”

“Big lies have led many people to reflexively distrust those in positions of authority. As a result, it is now impossible to say anything of substance on climate change, environmental pollution, human nutrition, economic policy, foreign conflicts, medicine, and dozens of other subjects without a significant percentage of one’s audience expressing paralyzing doubts about even the most reputable sources of information.”

The truth is naturally purifying of error

“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. You can even reconsider certain facts and honestly change your views. And you can openly discuss your confusion, conflicts, and doubts with all comers. A commitment to the truth is naturally purifying of error.”
Telling the truth allows you to avoid needless misery

“It was as if I had been given part of the user’s manual to a good life, and by following the simple principle of telling the truth, I could bypass most of the needless misery I read about in literature and witnessed in the lives of other people”