There’s a fable about lying that I always thought was really impressive. A member of a small rural community was found murdered. His wounds appeared to have been inflicted by a common grain sickle. Every farmer in town was therefore a suspect, but they all denied it, and there was no evidence to suggest one over the other.
The local magistrate gathered the farmers and had them lay their sickles in front of them. None of the tools showed any sign of blood, which was unsurprising—the killer would have rinsed it off immediately. But the magistrate had them wait in the sun until flies began to gather on one of the sickles, feeding on the invisible remnants of blood. Its owner turned pale and confessed to the crime.
I always thought this story was from the Bible, but it was actually a real case from 13th century China, documented in a handbook for coroners called The Washing Away of Wrongs.
This story always moved me because of how the judge’s method cut right through to the truth, even though the killer surely thought nothing could connect him to the crime once he had washed his weapon clean. Because lying works so well, people often believe it’s possible to keep the truth off-limits to others, or even destroy it completely. But there is no real “washing away of wrongs”—whatever is true remains true even if that truth is currently hidden, and there’s no way to be certain that it can never be discovered.
To me, there was always something amazing (and strangely terrifying) about that idea. Imagine a world where lies simply didn’t work. People could still do bad things, but not with the expectation that nobody would know. In a world like that, the only way to be seen as good is to be good.
It would be a vastly different world than the one we know. As it stands now, lying is extremely common. A University of Massachusetts study found that 60% of people can’t go ten minutes without lying. When shown video of their conversations after the study, the subjects couldn’t believe how easily they said things that weren’t true. Lies are so ubiquitous that we take for granted that businesses and politicians will deceive us to the fullest extent they can get away with.
“It’s so easy to lie,” Feldman [the UMass researcher] said. “We teach our children that honesty is the best policy, but we also tell them it’s polite to pretend they like a birthday gift they’ve been given. Kids get a very mixed message regarding the practical aspects of lying, and it has an impact on how they behave as adults.”
I remember how easily I lied as a kid. A friend of mine once claimed that his dad was seven feet tall, and I instantly responded by telling him my dad was eight feet tall. There was no deliberation about this, it just seemed like the natural thing to say. I also remember claiming I’d seen movies that I hadn’t seen, and liking toys I didn’t like, because I knew I could avoid some annoying teasing that way. This kind of posturing seemed really important, and everyone I knew did it, except those hapless kids who didn’t know how things really worked.
A world where lies don’t work
For almost a hundred years now we’ve had the polygraph, which is still often referred to as a “lie detector”. It doesn’t actually detect lies though, it just detects changes in pulse and sweatiness, which are associated with deception but can be caused by many other things. Polygraphs are not admissible in court.
However, we might be close to true lie detection. Today, fMRI scans can show differences in brain activity between people who believe what they’re saying and people who don’t. So far this type of lie detection isn’t good enough to be court-admissible either, but some neuroscientists say dependable lie detection devices are inevitable.
Imagine if everybody knew that lying was functionally impossible in a courtroom, or a campaign speech. It’s almost unthinkable compared to how we live now. Institutions that depend on the truth being told could finally operate under the truth. Neuroscientist Sam Harris described what such a society might be like, in this short piece: “Thereafter, civilized people would share a common presumption: that wherever important conversations are held, the truthfulness of all participants will be monitored.”
This would be a bombshell of a change. Nobody would invest in companies that didn’t voluntarily subject their public statements to lie detection. Honest operations would gain a huge competitive advantage. Corrupt governments would have a much harder time staying in power.
While not all conversations would happen under lie detection, the public would demand it of the important ones. It would still be possible to keep secrets, and to refuse to comment on particular topics, but it would no longer be common to pretend to tell the truth.
Lies would become much more taboo in public and private life. People would, generally, only take actions they could admit to. We would undoubtedly have to confront difficult truths about ourselves and our loved ones, which would probably make us all more accepting and more forgiving. We wouldn’t be able to hide our warts so easily, so we’d develop much more realistic expectations of each other.
The bottom line is that society would become a lot less concerned with appearances, and a lot more interested in facts.
Honesty and transparency aren’t the same thing
We should be clear that a world without lying is not the same as a world without privacy. Complete transparency probably isn’t something anybody really wants. And we wouldn’t have it, but we would at least know who’s willing to speak transparently, and who isn’t.
We do need the ability to keep information from others, and our reasons aren’t always devious. If you have terminal cancer, you don’t necessarily want everyone to know that, and nobody should have a right to that information. It would become a lot more common (and acceptable) to say, “I don’t want to talk about that right now.”
This brings up another huge upside to dishonesty becoming more difficult: we would have to learn how to be honest and kind at the same time. Often we lie to avoid uncomfortable social situations, and these lies hurt people in the long run. Telling a bad singer they are a good singer is only going to prolong their struggle and stifle your relationship with them. There are ways to tell people uncomfortable truths tactfully, but we never learn them if we depend on white lies instead. (The aforementioned Sam Harris’s short book Lying is a great read on this idea—that white lies keep us from developing crucial interpersonal skills.)
What do you think?
A world where lies don’t work sounds wonderful, and also kind of scary, and I can’t quite figure out why. I don’t think I lie very often anymore, but maybe I do and don’t notice? Maybe I have skeletons in my closet that I’ve forgotten about because they’ve been buried so long.
Here’s another interesting objection: shouldn’t we have a right to lie? Isn’t there something draconian about a world where we’re not allowed to say something that we know isn’t true? Maybe, but that’s not the proposition here. The advent of lie detection technology doesn’t have anything necessarily to do with laws against lying. But it would make it much easier to enforce the ones we already have, such as truth in advertising and perjury. I don’t think anyone would be in favor of criminal charges for telling people you don’t watch The Bachelorette.
I guess one major worry is false positives. If you got unlucky, you could be thrown in prison based on a bad “read”. Of course, our fates already hinge in exactly this way on a much more crude form of lie detection: twelve untrained, ordinary citizens, selected strategically by a pair of opposing lawyers.
It’s hard to say how exactly how the world will change once we have reliable lie detection, but there’s no question that it will be dramatic. What do you think about it? If it seems both wonderful and terrifying, then our relationship with lying might be a lot more complex than we’d like to admit.