Las Vegas Sun

April 21, 2018

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To tell the truth: Experts ponder the effects of lying in American culture

"The truth? You can't handle the truth!" - Jack Nicholson, "A Few Good Men"

It's a common image: a witness taking the stand in a courtroom is asked to place his left hand on the Bible and raise his right hand.

"Do you promise to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?" the bailiff asks.

If the witness were being entirely truthful, he or she would often say, "No."

"In the courtroom, nobody wants truth," Ron Slay said. "Everybody has their own agenda. No one is seeking a fair-minded truth. Everything is slanted."

Slay owns Western Security Consultants, a Las Vegas firm that administers polygraph tests. His job is to determine if someone is lying or telling the truth.

"Some studies of psychopathy (mental disorders) and social behavior say (lying) is increasing as a norm of society," Slay said. "We are exposed to them, always, in the court. It is part of the system. The person is innocent because police made a mistake in the investigation."

Slay says society as a whole is being affected by what goes on in the courtroom, where truth often is irrelevant to whether a criminal escapes punishment.

"When I worked for the (Clark County) Family Court 20 years ago, three young boys got into trouble. One of the boys came from a very good family who said, You're going to go down there and tell the truth and take your punishment,'" Slay recalled. "The other two said they were not admitting anything and they wanted a public defender they got off.

"I think a strong case can be made for saying that we (society) are very ineffective at punishing the remorseless, defiant criminals. We have been so ineffective at doing that, that we need to punish those that we can in order to compensate for it so we punish those who are remorseful and truthful. Remorseful and truthful people are punished by our system to a far greater degree, while the really bad ones are getting away with their crimes."

The lesson is not lost on society in general, Slay notes.

"The Air Force does the same thing," he said. "They will gather a roomful of people and tell them the best chance they have of getting a wonderful, high-level, preferred job is being truthful.

"Then they interview candidates one at a time. 'Have you smoked marijuana?' 'Yes, sir!' 'You're out of here! Next!' 'Have you smoked marijuana?' and the next one looks the interviewer in the eye and sincerely says 'No, sir! Never!' and lies about it with great sincerity, but he gets the job."

Such behavior is not limited to any single facet of society.

"That's happening everywhere," Slay said. "It's happening with people who are applying for military jobs, with police jobs, with all kinds of jobs."

Slay said what worries him about the proliferation of lying is that it hurts people who are sincere and truthful.

"Society would be better off, in things like courtrooms and employment and many other areas of our lives, if sincerity and truthfulness and remorse were actually rewarded," Slay said. "But people are learning the hard way not to be truthful."

Slay said a phrase he routinely hears is, "You would be a fool to tell the truth."

"A woman confessed to me the other day. She was in tears. She said, 'My attorney's going to be so mad at me -- I told the truth.' "

Childhood lies

"Falsehood is invariably the child of fear in one form or another." -- Aleister Crowley

Learning to lie comes early in life.

Sixty-year-old Gary Schwebs, an artist from Los Angeles, remembers how he learned to lie as a child.

"My dad was an extremely violent, abusive person," Schwebs said. "Because of his violence, it turned me to lying in self-defense."

Schwebs was in Las Vegas recently for a showing of his oil paintings at the Sculptures, Art & Antiques gallery on South Decatur Boulevard.

He said the experience with his father caused him to be sensitive to the lying issue when dealing with his two daughters.

"I just told my daughters, 'Tell me the truth and we can deal with that, but lie to me and we can't,' " Schwebs said. "Now I can sit down and talk to my daughters about anything."

Having been abused, Schwebs also does volunteer work with abused and abusive adults.

"Abusive husbands lie to themselves, and the wives believe the lies," he said.

Schwebs conducts art classes at shelters for abused women and children.

"My goal is to get them to talk," he said. "I remember my first class, I told the guys anything they can name I've already done, so if they wanted to bring up things that would be fine.

"Pretty soon they started opening up and everyone was sitting around talking and doing very little painting. It opened the doors to truth."

Linda Plevyak, an assistant professor of early childhood education a the University of California, Berkeley, says children are keenly observant of what others do. If a child sees a parent or a teacher lie, the child is apt to form a judgment that lying is all right.

"We have to be models for children," Plevyak said in an article that appeared in the July issue of HR Magazine, published by the Society for Human Resource Management in Alexandria, Va.

Plevyak points to three stages of moral awareness as an individual matures:

If I don't get caught, it isn't wrong. If a child can lie and not get caught, they don't see that as something wrong.

The social approval stage: What will happen if I get caught?

The highest stage involving principles and morality, the stage of awareness when you realize even laws can be wrong, and you feel a moral obligation to change them.

Plevyak says parents shouldn't wait to hear a lie before talking to their children about the issue.

"Parents can help children by posing a moral dilemma in scenarios: 'I asked you to come straight home, but instead you stopped by the candy store, and I noticed you were late. What would you say if I asked why you were late?' "

Plevyak said children also need to understand when unsupervised actions are wrong, such as raiding the cookie jar when the parent is out of sight. If they get away with dishonesty early, they are apt to believe it is acceptable later in life.

Wendy Gamble, associate professor at the University of Arizona, noted in the same HR article that, "The sheer numbers and types of lies increase as children mature; however, most lies are told to benefit another person or to protect someone's feelings (pro-social lies).

"Children tell more pro-social lies to peers. They tell more selfish (i.e., to conceal a misdeed or protect the self at the expense of another) and self-enhancement (to avoid embarrassment, disapproval or punishment) lies to their mothers."

Children learn lying from adults who, Gamble said, lie two to three times a day. If parents want to raise an honest child, they must, most importantly, be aware of their own behavior.

Adult lies

"With lies you may go ahead in the world, but you can never go back." -- Russian proverb

According to a survey this year by SHRM (Society for Human Resource Management), 25-40 percent of job applicants embellish, distort or outright lie on their resumes about accomplishments.

About 95 percent of college students said they would lie to get a job, and 41 percent have already done so.

Job seekers have grown progressively more dishonest, the report said. A survey in 1979 found 18 percent of job seekers had lied. A 1997 study reported the number had grown to 36 percent.

Lying often slips over into other areas of dishonesty, such as stealing.

SHRM noted that an average organization loses more than $9 a day per employee to fraud and abuse.

The figure came from a study conducted by the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE), an international organization based in Austin, Texas. Among the study's other findings: The average organization loses approximately 6 percent of its total annual revenue to fraud and abuse committed by its own employees.

The typical perpetrator, according to the study, was a college-educated white male.

SHRM's 1998 Ethics Resource Center Business Ethics Survey found that:

27 percent of employees were observed stealing.

36 percent were observed lying on reports or falsifying records.

45 percent were observed lying to supervisors.

Some jobs almost require you to lie, or to shade the truth, although most of those in the profession would deny they deliberately tell falsehoods.

For example, public relations executives are paid to put their clients in the best possible light.

One executive, who requested not to be identified, said there are times when you have to lie on behalf of your client or get fired. It's a matter of self-preservation.

"But there has to be an element of truth to anything you are trying to promote," the executive said, "or you lose your credibility. Once you go down that road, become known as a liar, your credibility is shot and you won't be able to represent anyone."

There may be a fine line between fact and fiction in public relations.

"A publicist's job is to scream from the mountain top how great their clients are," he said. "I'm fortunate because I work with people I actually believe in. If I didn't believe in them, I would have a tough time sleeping at night."

Others don't have the same qualms.

"This is Las Vegas," he said.

Moral dilemma

"Every violation of truth is not only a sort of suicide in the liar, but is a stab at the health of human society." -- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Paul Schollmeier, chairman of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, points out the moral issue of lying.

"Lying corrupts your very soul," he said. "It creates an irrational state in your soul, and that is a bad place to be in. The most terrible thing about lying is that it cuts you off from whoever you lie to. You have broken the bond with friends or business associates. It's just a terrible place to be in."

Schollmeier is not as pessimistic as many others about the human condition as it relates to lying.

"I don't think it is generally acceptable," he said. "I wonder if it is as prevalent as (they) say."

Ultimately, the worst thing about lying, Schollmeier said, is that it corrodes society.

"Society can't function if there is no mutual trust," he said. "I believe we haven't reached that stage yet where everyone is lying all the time. Honesty is more prevalent than dishonesty. Most people do tell the truth."

The worst lie of all, Schollmeir, is the one you tell yourself.

"You persuade yourself that you didn't tell a lie, or that it was a mistake," he said. "Talk to an athlete, or a professional gambler. They are very honest with themselves, that's how they improve their game, how they work to overcome their faults. You can't do that when you are dishonest with yourself."

A radical idea

"If one cannot invent a really convincing lie, it is often better to stick to the truth." -- Angela Thirkell

An organization called the Center for Radical Honesty was created four years ago in Stanley, Va., by 60-year-old Ron Blanton.

Blanton is a psychotherapist, author and speaker who describes himself as "an aging hippie; white trash with a Ph.D." He is founding president of the Gestalt Institute of Washington in 1970.

In 1996 he published his first book, "Radical Honesty: How To Transform Your Life By Telling The Truth." He followed that up with "Practicing Radical Honesty: Completing the Past, Staying in the Present, and Building a Future With a Little Help From Your Friends."

His most recent book is "Honest to God," written with Neale Donald Walsch. Another book, "Radical Parenting: Seven Steps to a Functional Family in a Dysfunctional World," will soon be released.

Blanton said his radical approach to honesty has its roots in the movements of the 1960s -- civil rights, anti-war and freedom of speech.

He says he was repulsed by the lies told by the federal government then and continues to be repulsed by the lies the government tells today.

"The amount of lying done by (politicians and) the government to the people is immense," Blanton said. "(But) this basically reflects the fact that we are a lying society.

"Lying in this country has been commonplace for a long time. Schools teach it. Organized religion teaches it. They tell kids not to lie, but force them constantly to pretend like they are always good little boys and girls.

"The primary value being taught here is manipulating your image in the eyes of others."

Blanton is waging a war against lying.

"I'm trying to have an impact on the general social acceptablity of lying like hell all the time," he said. "Everyone assumes they are supposed to lie."

But lying, Blanton said, makes a prisoner of the liar.

"You're living in the isolation of your own story," he said. "You are isolated, not honestly relating to others. You can't have an honest relationship with anybody if you are living in a story."

If people were radically honest, Blanton said, they would be less depressed, less stressed and less angry.

"Lying creates a jail in your mind," he said. "To break out, we must start telling the truth to the people around us. We will all be much healthier for it."

Blanton says not many people actually say what they are thinking or feeling.

"We're afraid of hurting another person's feelings. We are afraid of offending someone or that they will think less of us. We won't be able to keep up the image we're trying to project.

"This problem is systemic in our culture because we place such a high premium on diplomacy and getting along without rocking the boat. This results in a dishonest self-portrait and a condescending attitude toward other people. It's actually more disrespectful to treat others in a less than honest way than to speak our minds."