Why Lying is Bad for You

Diana Vilibert
August 22, 2012

If asked, most of us would probably say that lying is bad. Many of us may even claim that we never, or hardly ever, lie. And to that I say: you’re lying! Studies have found that most people tell an average of 11 lies a week—it sounds like a high number, but just think of the last time you blamed imaginary traffic when you were late. Or the last time you told a friend you loved her haircut even though you secretly think it looks like a weird wig. Or the last time you turned down an invite because you couldn’t get a babysitter (never mind that you don’t have a babysitter, because it would be weird to get one for your houseplants). Those little white lies add up… and they’re taking a toll on your relationships and your health.

A new study put the adage “honesty is the best policy” to the test recently, when Notre Dame psychology professor Anita Kelly spent 10 weeks tracking 110 adults. Half of them were were told to report the number of lies they told each week. The other half of the group was asked to stop lying completely during the study, which meant no false statements, though omitting the truth, avoiding answering a question, and keeping secrets were all allowed. Throughout the study period, all participants took a weekly lie detector test and filled out questionnaires about their health and the quality of their relationships.

Sort of unsurprising considering the weekly lie detector test, but the study resulted in both groups lying less. The interesting part? The people instructed not to lie at all experienced health benefits as a result—to be exact, telling three fewer lies each week resulted in four fewer mental health complaints and three fewer physical health complaints. Lying is thought to trigger the release of stress hormones, increasing heart rate and blood pressure and reducing your white blood cells… leading to all sorts of fun stuff, like tension headaches, lower back pain, and a rapid heartbeat.

Those who made an effort to stop lying also reported improved relationships, confirming long-standing research indicating that people with good relationships are in better health. It makes sense that big lies, from cheating to hiding financial issues from your significant other, take a toll. But how come smaller lies are such a big deal? “It takes a lot of negative physical and mental energy to maintain a lie,” said Linda Stroh, author of Trust Rules: How to Tell the Good Guys From the Bad Guys. “We have to think before we answer and we have to plan what we say and do, rather than saying and doing what comes more naturally. We waste a lot of precious time covering our tracks rather than spending that time in positive ways, doing good things.”

…All right, so who’s going to be the first to tell their husband that his new beard makes him look like a Furby?

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Replies to This Discussion

This research is great! How often do you get scientific validation of of a moral position?

Not very often - I liked the way they set up the study. The lie detector test especially.

Thanks for this post Steph.  Nice to know.

I hate people lying to me.  I very seldom lie to others, and try to eliminate lying altogether.  I don't hate "white lies", but would prefer that people are honest with me, even in that area.

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