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What if You Couldn’t Lie?


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.


photo by joe del tufo
David R. November 16, 2015 at 12:43 am

From one David to another, let me say that this is a good read. That UMass statistic about how many people lie as a matter of course (and how often) was pretty shocking. It’s hard to believe, but at the same time, not so hard.

I also appreciate how you noted that honesty and transparency aren’t the same thing. Imagine a world where you don’t have to disclose private details about your life; but whatever you DO choose to disclose must be the truth, lest you suffer public humiliation and punishment. I’m sure there are scenarios I haven’t considered, but that seems like a fair balance to me.

About your question on what we think about all this: again, I’m sure there are scenarios and exceptions I haven’t considered, but you know what? The world is so full of lies right now that I would have no objection to a sudden implementation of “truth or else”. Let’s just go from one extreme to the other, and see what happens. Under that system, the more honest we are, the less we have to worry about, anyway.

David Cain November 16, 2015 at 8:57 am

I’m trying to think of scenarios in which it would make the world worse, and I’m sure there are some, but I can’t think of any. There would certainly be a difficult adjustment period, where a lot of long-held lies come out. But I think we would end up being more forgiving to others for lying in many cases. We often do it to save ourselves embarrassment or ridicule.

Elen November 16, 2015 at 3:02 pm

I think it depends who has control over the new technology, who gets subjected to it, and what for. In an equal society, perhaps the requirement to use the technology in a specific situation would be applied fairly, justly and equally. But in an unequal society (and show me a society where there isn’t at least some unequality) those with less power would necessarily be subjected to such technology more frequently than the powerful. A dictaror, say, might use lie detection technology to interrogate people (most likely in addition to torture), but continue to lie with impunity him- or herself. Even in equal-ish democratic societies, I can imagine politicians, say, passing laws requiring lie detection technology to be used in law courts. But I can’t imagine them volunteering to speak under lie detection technology in their election campaigns. Maybe it’d happen in time, but I imagine they’d fight it long and hard.

moviewatcher November 16, 2015 at 1:28 am

There is a nice movie: The Invention of Lying (2009). It shows how our world could look like when there was no lying :) Very funny British comedy, worth watching.

David Cain November 16, 2015 at 8:58 am

I think I remember it… Ricky Gervais?

Geeky McFangirl November 16, 2015 at 2:26 am

You may enjoy the book The Truth Machine. It is science fiction (for now) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Truth_Machine

David Cain November 16, 2015 at 8:59 am

This looks great!

Seth November 16, 2015 at 5:10 pm

I recall enjoying this book. I might have to reread it.

Paul November 16, 2015 at 2:30 am

Wow! I really LOVE your articles! This one really brings not only one (which would be much), but two new ideas to me, of which I have never thought before. First, that lie-detection could have a drastic impact on all important (public) communications and give a huge advantage to the party who is willing to be transparent. Second, that white lies may steal us the opportunity to train important social skills. Interesting, that one.

So two new ideas in one article – I think new ideas are really rare and hard to get. Thank you for this!

David Cain November 16, 2015 at 9:01 am

I’m glad you liked the article but I can’t take credit for the idea of true lie detection. People have been talking about it for a long time. If you like the idea of personal development through radical honesty, you would definitely like Lying.

Pippa November 16, 2015 at 3:08 am

There’s also a difference between telling the truth and brutal honesty. I remember going to a shop alone to try on dresses for a wedding. I liked one particular dress and asked the shop assistant to give me an honest opinion. She hesitated for a second and then said, ‘you could do better’. I’ve got body issues and she could have destroyed me if she’d said something more forensic. Instead, she made me feel great!

David Cain November 16, 2015 at 9:03 am

Tact is hugely important when it comes to imparting truth, and one certainty is that we would get much better at being honest with kindness. We would also get much better at having harsh truths revealed to us, because we’re not always being lied to.

Dana November 16, 2015 at 3:26 am

I’ve given this subject a lot of thought in the past so it’s nice to be reminded of it again. I think one big problem of lying lies in the intentions. Unfortunately, most of the lies are not spoken out to “save” someone or to try to avoid giving someone an unnecesssarily bad time. I’m pretty sure most of the lies that come out of minds are mainly to make ourselves look better or to hide real crimes. Of course we can not be sure about statistical numbers in that case but we can just think about our own lies and serieously how many of the lies we told were lies to not hurt the feelings of someone else? Not so many? Are there any good intentions at all for lying? I’m quite sure there aren’t. Furthermore, aren’t we not just patronizing people by sparing the truth?
Just to be clear, I’m not talking about sparing out details. You can always tell the truth and still leave out some facts you don’t want to share. Everyone is also responsible for actively questioning things we hear.
It’s easy for me to imagine a world without lies and I’m pretty sure this world couldn’t be worse than what we are experiencing now. And who nows, maybe lying is the root of all evil?! ;)
Thanks for this interesting article!

David Cain November 16, 2015 at 9:05 am

The study in the article is really interesting, because it suggests that most of our lies are small and seemingly petty, like lying about which movies we’ve seen. Much of our lying seems to be about controlling how we look to others. But when people are public figures (such as politicians) this control is much more important and those lies affect many more people.

trillie November 16, 2015 at 3:55 am

I was going to suggest the movie ‘The Invention of Lying’, but someone above already beat me to it. The other thing I wanted to refer to, is that there is a realistic chance the sheer availability of total transparency would give rise to pressure to adopt it. This is explored in Dave Eggers’ novel ‘The Circle’. You might think the option to say ‘I don’t want to talk about that’ would still stand, and it would, but it would immediately sound suspicious. Maybe that’s the thing that “feels scary” about it.
PS: You wrote ‘how’ twice in your last paragraph.

David Cain November 16, 2015 at 9:06 am

I am most interested in how it would change our speaking conventions. Today “I don’t want to talk about that” sounds suspicious, but that may be because we’re so used to people lying instead of saying that they don’t want to say.

Joe November 16, 2015 at 4:20 am

Everyone lies. It even happens in nature or otherwise animals, birds, and insects wouldn’t have evolved camouflage. Sometimes it can be useful.

David Cain November 16, 2015 at 9:08 am

That’s interesting… animals do use deception to survive. I would argue that our situation is quite different because of language. Much of human life depends on representing facts using language, and harm can be caused when we deliberately misrepresent facts. But I don’t think it will ever be socially unacceptable to deceive someone out of fear for your life.

Chris November 16, 2015 at 5:08 am

Awesome! This made me think of two things. 1 was an NPR podcast with a guy who never filtered anything. His parents taught him that you should just say what you think all the time. To me, telling the truth all the time and not lying all the time are two very things.

The 2nd is from Robert Jordan’s very long (13 book) series The Wheel of Time. In that series, there’s some magical ladies who take an oath and are unable to lie. They still get along fine and end up swinging political tides. I’m sure the magic helps but not lying when you’re being very general isn’t as hard as you think.

David Cain November 16, 2015 at 9:10 am

Hi Chris. Do you have a link to that podcast? I’d love to hear it.

Vilx- November 16, 2015 at 4:25 pm

Heh, the Wheel of Time series was exactly what came to my mind too when reading this! Except I remembered it in a counterpoint to what David wrote. In essence, since they were unable to lie, they adapted to it, and became extremely good at misleading people without actually telling a lie. Half-truths, answering questions with rhetorical questions, etc – many methods to make people hear what you want them to hear without actually saying it out loud. And as a result, they were the most skilled political manipulators around, pulling the strings of all the kingdoms in their part of the world.

So, in other words, I don’t think such a device would be as big a dealbreaker as David thinks. Yes, it’d be very useful in courtrooms – there’s no wriggle room when you’re cornered and need to answer in simple yes/no. But for more broad everyday situations – the no-lie condition can be worked around easily enough.

(P.S. I also highly recommend the book series)

Chris November 16, 2015 at 6:45 pm

Can’t believe I found it! Blows my mind that there are parents like this out there. http://m.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/552/need-to-know-basis

Its in Act one.

Nicolas Laurent November 16, 2015 at 5:50 am

I’d be scared to live in a society that has such a lie detector. Used as you describe it would be an improvement; but it could also be used to oppress and coerce.

David Cain November 16, 2015 at 9:11 am

That was my initial thought too, but I am not sure exactly how. Can you think of an example?

Scott November 16, 2015 at 11:14 am

Any belief considered deviant to a society with true lie detection becomes discoverable, which sounds like a nightmare to me.

The only people *not* scared by a society like that are those that fit the idealized mold of the society to a T.

Robert November 16, 2015 at 6:00 am

Interesting read.

I’ve been thinking about the topic a lot lately as it pertains to job interviews. Interviews, I’ve come to realize, are all about lying.

The company wants to work me as hard as possible, and pay me as little as possible for it. I, on the other hand, want to work as little as possible and get paid as much as possible for it. If they tell me the truth, I won’t work for them, and if I tell them the truth they won’t hire me.

So we lie to each other. They tell me my work hours will be “flexible”, and I tell them I’m “looking for a challenge”. I get the job! Then find out they want me to routinely work more than 40 hours a week, and they find out I’m just there to collect a paycheck because bread isn’t free.

I’m a software developer by the way. And apparently, applicants in my field are notorious liars. Software companies have responded with the “FizzBuzz” test: http://blog.codinghorror.com/why-cant-programmers-program/

When we finally get reliable lie detection, no doubt it will find its way to the interview room. I just hope the hiring manager has the decency to subject themselves to it as well.

David Cain November 16, 2015 at 9:19 am

I totally agree. The job interview is one of the least candid, least upfront kinds of conversations we have in society. We are probably never representing ourselves exactly how we are in a job interview. Even just trying to “look our best” is technically a form of deception.

I do wonder how conventions would change under enforced honesty. A lot of that wishy-washy soft-speak about “looking for a challenge” would probably disappear, and I don’t know who’d miss it :)

That FizzBuzz article is shocking.

Sarah Noelle November 16, 2015 at 6:02 am

I also heard that NPR podcast that Chris mentioned — it was a segment of This American Life and can be found here if anyone is interested (it’s Act One, “Full Disclosure”): http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/552/need-to-know-basis

I really enjoyed this post. I’d be curious to know what anyone else thinks about how lying relates to narrative. Do you remember that debacle several years ago involving the author James Frey and his book “A Million Little Pieces”? He published it as a memoir, and Oprah loved it and featured it in her book club, but then someone found out that some of the facts in some of the stories he told in the book had been altered, and Oprah ended up publicly cutting all ties to the book and the author. I don’t remember all the details, but I think the author claimed that because the book was creative non-fiction, the changes he had made were acceptable within the genre (he may have later apologized; I’m not sure).

That is an extreme example, but this topic is something I think about a lot, especially in regards to my own writing. When recounting something that happened to you, whether orally or on paper, it is IMPOSSIBLE to write down every single detail in an objective way — there are just too many details. Rather, we are always constructing a narrative, telling a story, and so we choose to leave some details in and other details out. We decide what to include, what to highlight, and we create a story arc (e.g. problem –> resolution). Even if this doesn’t include *lying* per se, I think it could be argued that there’s a bit of a gray area there. While I don’t condone altering facts and presenting them as truth, I’m also fairly sympathetic to James Frey’s situation.

Jill D November 16, 2015 at 8:10 am

This was my very first reaction upon reading the post. What is a “lie” and what is a difference in perception? A difference in memory? There have been a ton of studies about the inherent unreliability of “eyewitness accounts.” We are only beginning to understand why we see what we (think we) see, why we remember what we (think we) remember. I have a number of siblings, and every one of us has a different recollection of what happened when we were growing up in the same (but very different) family.

David Cain November 16, 2015 at 9:56 am

Lying isn’t about whether or not false information is passed on, it’s a matter of whether the person believes what they’re saying, or is attempting to deceive. If you and your sibling disagree on what happened, but you both think you’re right, neither of you are lying.

Jill D November 17, 2015 at 12:55 pm

Small consolation to the defendant wrongly convicted on the “sincere” but false (i.e., lying) testimony of the eyewitness.

David Cain November 16, 2015 at 9:36 am

Ah I have heard this podcast. I’m a big fan of TAL.

I remember the A Million Little Pieces thing with James Frey and Oprah. It made me wonder if most memoirs are like that. Certainly all of them are “storied up” to some degree. I am sympathetic to Frey too, especially after Oprah’s self-important disemboweling of him on the air, because I’m sure a ton of well-loved memoirs are the same.

You make a great point about the limits of language — we can never perfectly represent the truth, because language is always approximate. But I think lying has to do with intentions more than results. The question is “Are you trying to give someone a false impression of what’s true, in a situation where they expect honest communication?” So inaccurate writing/speaking isn’t lying, even though it might give false impressions.

Angela November 18, 2015 at 4:29 pm

I recall A Million Little Pieces too, and actually was such a fan of his work that I attended a reading here in London where he read pieces of his next book. I wasn’t phased about the Oprah ‘disembowelment’ because I still believe his version of the truth and his story meant something to him when he wrote it.

Coming from the land of acting I spend so much time watching actors doing their thing…sometimes (just like the coders who can’t code) watching them pretend they can do things they totally can’t. They’ll say to the Casting Director, “Oh yeah, I can totally horse ride. I did it for years”, and in actual fact they tried it once on a pony at aged 5. BUT, if they book the job they do race out and get lots of lessons in a hurry.

It’s a funny old business (acting aside), and often the lies are because we as humans are desperate for a chance for something greater – be that a job, an opportunity, a moment.

As always, another great blog post David.

Dayne Rathbone November 16, 2015 at 6:35 am

Hi David, thanks for another excellent read.

I read Lying a couple years ago and it changed my life. My brother and I have started a company founded on its principles – http://www.karma.wiki.

We launched the site a couple months ago, and we’re still invite only, but I’d love to send you an invite and get your thoughts on what we’ve built.

All the best,

David Cain November 16, 2015 at 9:37 am

Sounds cool. Can you give us a quick rundown of the project?

Burak November 16, 2015 at 6:54 am

Truthfully, we already have that machine. Built-in. It’s called conscious. But this machine has a tendency to deteriorate -and eventually break down- if suppressed. Any other (outer) machine at that level of precision would be scary in the wrong hands.

That being said, there are 2 ways to protect that innate machine: Either tell the truth, or be silent. As in a quote I recall now: “It is your right that all that you say should be true, but not that you should say all that is true.”

David Cain November 16, 2015 at 9:38 am

The problem with a conscience is that we cannot tell when someone is using it :)

Lorrie B November 16, 2015 at 8:02 am

David, I love the passion behind your analyses, and am a keen reader of your posts. I wanted to add that we ALREADY HAVE the innate ability to detect lies; we just need to trust our instincts. The older you get, the better you get at knowing when someone is lying or truthful. Second, scenarios of “Telling a bad singer they are a good singer..” are a bit misleading. In a world of truth, there are no bad singers or good singers. You either like someone’s singing or you don’t; it’s entirely subjective. Third, there’s a difference between being open and being honest. I might want to share that I’m an addict (that’s honest) without going into the details of hitting rock bottom (that’s open). Do we have the right to lie? This implies that someone is giving out rights – as an atheist, I don’t think this way. Individuals can do whatever they want, and learn by the consequences what is right or wrong. If you want to live with people who speak honestly and openly, you have to become one yourself and seek out others who are. Children, of course, experiment with how far they can go/what they can get away with. It’s part of evolving. Once you know that you can lie and get away with it, though, you become complicit in your own drama. The fact that you still know you lied is the fact that you can’t escape!

David Cain November 16, 2015 at 9:47 am

As we mature, we definitely develop a keener intuition about who is lying and who isn’t. But the problem is that intuition isn’t proof. We can still be wrong, and more importantly, my intuition can’t convince anyone else beyond a reasonable doubt that they shouldn’t trust what someone is saying. Actual lie detection has applications in law, politics and business that intuition cannot reproduce.

I don’t agree that the quality of singing is subjective. There is a reason why Adele sells records, and William Hung doesn’t. Here’s an interesting video on why beauty is not (or not entirely) subjective: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G1UsGWxDPKA

Angie unduplicated November 16, 2015 at 9:15 am

The common use of computers as a truth-seeking device which literally crashes when faced with irrational/illogical programming may eventually guide a new ethos of honesty. Those who want honesty will understand the consequences of the corruption of one piece of information to a matrix of information and to all eventual users, and will let this guide their behavior.
Coders are a significant exception to this. These are the guys who create backdoor trojans, invade privacy, steal credit info and harass would-be female techies. Any and all forms of security against the RATmongers are advisable here.

David Cain November 16, 2015 at 9:49 am

The sci-fi implications are endless!

George G. November 16, 2015 at 9:50 am

I think one scary application of technology that would force truth from people would be in cultures that still have oppressive and bigoted views governing their lifestyle. I felt for years that I had to hide my homosexuality from my family and friends out of fear of persecution, though coming out was ultimately a life-saving and love-affirming game changer for me.

But not everyone lives in regions with such emotional support. Anti-lying tech could be used to further an agenda of oppression and even genocide.

David Cain November 17, 2015 at 8:38 am

That is definitely scary. But oppressive and bigoted institutions have always been scary, and I wonder if lie detection technology would do more to undermine them than empower them. Certainly lying is an essential tool of corrupt institutions.

George G. November 17, 2015 at 8:48 pm

In reality, I expect the use of such technology would be severely limited in such cultures. These are cultures that seem to thrive far more on the wild abandon of emotions and emotional interpretation of events rather than the austere and calculating method of studying factual evidence. Tyrannical dictators and similar regimes would see anti-lying tech as just another tool in their arsenal, to be just as tightly controlled as all other tools they use to uphold their privileged positions of power.

Bonnie James November 16, 2015 at 11:04 am

Like your article! It is such a coincidence that I just posted on our blog:
http://advancedreading.speedreadingplusblog.com/tag/masters-of-deceit/ about how lies are everywhere these days.

Very Timely!

Robert T November 16, 2015 at 12:16 pm

True lie detection will be pretty invasive, because it will entail physically accessing a subject’s brain, perhaps with sensors attached to the head. Also it would be naive to assume that an honest world would be rolled out in an open and democratic fashion. Truth will be compelled out of the vulnerable, while those with access to the proper resources will be able to continue with deceit. In fact, the moneyed will probably be at liberty to lie with even greater abandon, since they are cultivating absolute control of all communications hubs. Consider that we are in a state of endless war despite that the world is safer than it’s ever been. This wouldn’t be possible without a media that is carefully controlled. When you control the communications, you can do whatever you want, and truthfulness is not necessary.

There’s also the issue that people aren’t really capable of handling too much truth. White lies are what make relationships possible. Mystery makes relationships possible. On the spousal level, but in every other tier of society as well. If your wife knew every thought you had, society would dissolve. And in fact a government could use this fact for absolute, despotic, control.

David Cain November 17, 2015 at 8:42 am

There’s also the issue that people aren’t really capable of handling too much truth. White lies are what make relationships possible.

I wonder about this. I think it is true that they make many relationships possible as we know them today, but the nature of human relationships would certainly change if we could not depend on white lies. And again, lie detection technology is not the same as mind reading. Nobody will know every thought their spouse has, that’s not at all what’s on the table here.

atthatmatt November 16, 2015 at 12:48 pm

Basically, with advances in certain systems, we might be able to be reasonably certain that someone believes what they’re saying. That’s not quite an assurance of truth, but it would be a huge change. I suppose the litmus test of humanity’s innate quality would be whether the change inspired us to be more or less honest with ourselves. Just like Dogbert pushing world peace so that the world would be easier to conquer, pushing honesty while being able to lie would be a distinct competitive advantage. Cultivating cognitive dissonance, such that one could say anything and honestly believe it, could be valuable.

The ethics of the tech infrastructure would be interesting. Like voting machines, the person who controls the software controls the outcome. Might be a good application for a Distributed Autonomous Corporation.

I wrote a post a while ago on the subject of how there will be no such thing as privacy in the future. http://disruptivation.blogspot.com/2010/02/of-gaia-and-green-man.html?m=0

Oh, this also reminds me of the anime Psycho-Pass. They’ve got tech that scans a person for signs of criminal intent, then locks them up on that alone. It’s so good that everyone forgets crime is even possible. All their security systems become based on nothing but the Psycho-Pass score, to the point they don’t have a defense when someone figures out how to mask their criminal intent. Basically, be careful what metric you track, because it’s probably not perfect. It also makes me wonder about the border between the groups wealthy and important enough to make frequent use of the truth scans and everyone else. Maybe “stay in school, or you’ll never be scanned” could replace “flipping burgers” in the sense that some people just aren’t important enough to bother scanning. If, say, an entire first world country is used to using scanning, maybe they’d mandate that everyone entering the country be scanned to establish a baseline. Maybe the people in charge would build back doors into the tech to allow the well connected, and those who do their dirty work, to fool the scanners. Maybe a bad scan would affect your credit score. Maybe mass panic would justify “stop and scan” where the cops could force you to answer some arbitrary question truthfully, you know, to protect the children or stop terrorism or something.

David Cain November 17, 2015 at 8:46 am

Sci-fi is wonderful for speculating what technologies might do to human relationships. There would be all kinds of cultural side-effects like you mention.

The Usurper November 16, 2015 at 3:03 pm

An interesting concept. I like articles that make you contemplate new possibilities.

Going on the countless sci fi books I’ve read, I have a feeling that no matter how advanced lie detection technology becomes, people will always create ways to get around it. The problem arises if these avoidance techniques reach exorbitant prices, leaving the ability to lie solely to the super rich. Imagine the new corruption that would arise if only the ‘elite’ could lie.

David Cain November 17, 2015 at 8:49 am

I notice this theme in the comments, that a powerful technology like this would primarily empower the rich. Power distribution in society varies over time, and I think it is an open question whether lie detection would shrink that gap or expand it. I suspect having lie detection in court and business settings would lead to the shrinking of that gap.

Brent Eubanks November 16, 2015 at 5:21 pm

For a treatment of this topic in fiction, I recommend the Arthur C Clarke book “Light of Other Days”. The premise is that someone invents a “time window” that makes it possible to look back at any historical event, from any place or time in the future.

Granted, it’s not exactly what you are talking about here. In that story, the technology enforces transparency, rather than simply honesty. And it allows you to view events from the past (including the distant past) so past mis-deeds and lies are not hidden by the passage of time. But their culture faces some of the same issues that you allude to here.

David Cain November 17, 2015 at 8:50 am

That sounds fascinating. Reminds me of that Black Mirror episode, where everyone has a chip in their heads that records their entire lives. They can rewind to any moment and see it with clarity.

The Usurper November 17, 2015 at 1:59 pm

Actually now that you mention it, the Commonwealth saga by Peter Hamilton has a technology thay is once again different, but has similar implications. People have the ability to record and store their memories, and these can be read by court order. This is a rare and excruciating event, but does happen. One man accused or murder didn’t even realise that he was guilty until the memory read, as he simply deleted the memory.

Pamela Olson November 16, 2015 at 7:57 pm

On the whole, as a person who strives to live a life that requires no dishonesty or hiding of anything, this appeals to me greatly. I’ve written an intimate memoir about living in Palestine, and I write publicly about reproductive issues, including my own. I think the more things are out in the open, the better people tend to feel.

I can think of a couple of times when radical honesty would be tough, though. In the case of an underground operation that struggles for human rights in a repressive regime. And in the case of, for example, a closeted gay person in a repressive society.

Ideally, the more open we are, the less repressive our societies and governments will/can be. I hope that will be the case as the world becomes more open, educated, and connected.

David Cain November 17, 2015 at 8:53 am

I think the more things are out in the open, the better people tend to feel.

I totally agree, and I think you are right that openness would lead to less oppression. I think lies allow people to cause more harm than they otherwise could.

lauren November 16, 2015 at 8:43 pm

I am a lawyer and one thing I have learned in my job is that the “truth” or “facts” are subjective. Everyone recalls events differently and everyone sees life their own way. Are they lying if they are seeing it differently to the rest of the world? I suppose they are not lying according to the lie detector, because they believe they are telling the truth.
If this is the case then why do we need the lie detector? To catch out those really naughty people who are just lying for the fun of it?
I certainly think we have a right to lie and we should have that right.
I think a jury of laypersons is preferable to lie detector technology because it is never acceptable for someone to go to jail over a false positive.
If this kind of technology were available it would inevitably be used to the detriment of the lower socio-economic end of society (eg criminals) and not politicians and CEOs.
Also this seems to be a fixation on events that (mostly) happened in the past – this is not very mindful?!

Anna November 17, 2015 at 6:17 am

I was thinking along the same lines – some of the biggest problems that (in my opinion) are caused by Big Money people and politicians is that they actually seem to believe in what they say, ridiculous as it might seem sometimes.

And even if some level of an organisation is consciously deceptive, it could be pretty easy to circumvent a test: just instruct / indoctrinate someone into thinking they are telling the truth and have them take it.

David Cain November 17, 2015 at 9:02 am

We should define what a lie is here, as Harris did in his book:

To lie is to intentionally mislead others when they expect honest communication. This leaves stage magicians, poker players, and other harmless dissemblers off the hook, while illuminating a psychological and social landscape whose general shape is very easy to recognize. People lie so that others will form beliefs that are not true.

There are definitely all kinds of errors, misunderstandings and erroneous beliefs that will not be rectified by lie detection. Its purpose is to identify instances in which somebody is saying that something is true when they know it isn’t. That certainly doesn’t cover every instance of bad communication but it is far from a rare occurrence.

disiakay November 17, 2015 at 7:42 am

the biggest lies are not the ones we tell others, but the ones we tell ourselves…
we lie to ourselves about who we are, why we are who we are, what we believe in what why we believe it and if, in the end, we really know where we are going…
all the lies we tell others, are told in the attempt to cover up the ones we tell ourselves, to avoid our painful truth…

disiakay November 17, 2015 at 7:55 am

…and maybe lying to ourselves would be ok, if it didn’t make us less of a friend, less of a lover, less of a parent, less of a companion, less of a person able to acknowledge good and to bear it…(produce it in a healthy way)…

Rose Costas November 17, 2015 at 7:56 am

It is so very funny how easily people can lie and think nothing of it. I think as a people we have been lied to for so long by our leaders, parents and others that we too have become indifferent to whether a person lies or not. It doesn’t seem to matter too much any more.

Daniel November 17, 2015 at 8:20 am

We have a place that is sort of like this: the Netherlands. Generally, people there mean exactly what they say, no more and no less. Speaking your mind openly is widely encouraged and people are very direct. Discussions of politics and religion are used in place of smalltalk. There is no social punishment for honestly speaking your mind. Dutch people get quite confused with the English greeting “how are you?”, and will tell you at length exactly how they are when they hear this.

At first the culture seems rude but I realised that being always open and honest is refreshing and takes the guesswork out of personal relationships.

David Cain November 17, 2015 at 9:06 am

My best friend’s Dad is Dutch and she has definitely inherited this quality. She calls it “Dutch directness”. Where I grew up you’re supposed to avoid saying certain true things because they’re “rude”. It’s what I’m used to but it’s weird when you look at it from the outside. I wrote a lighthearted post about it here:


Hilary November 17, 2015 at 8:25 am

A few comments mention intuition and how we get better at figuring out what’s true from other people. A few years ago, I followed through with a New Year’s resolution to be truthful. The first thing I realized was that I could no longer boast/ recolor the past/ embellish, and this was highly ungratifying. In regular conversations, I just had to now remain silent when before I would have some fantastic anecdote (sprinkled with entertaining harmless white lies that we all enjoy) to add. I also started noticing that I had less to remember, the more honest I was with everyone up front. Running late was no longer a crisis, I’d just notify people that I was running late. Period. No excuses, no stories to fabricate. Things got ever simpler the longer I stuck with all of this. Unflattering photos on Facebook remained tagged, I wouldn’t run errands unless I could reply “well, and you?” to a cashier asking how I was, and when I actually did have a great story to relay at the pub, the floor was mine. Eventually — I can’t explain it really — I feel like my friendships and relationship with the regular daily world around me either got stronger (like honesty made me more involved? Present?), much less threatening, and a great deal happier. I think it’s in part because everyone else could sense that I wasn’t much of a bullshit artist, or that I was presenting things more as they actually are instead of what I need them to look like for my ego’s sake. There’s no competition or one-upmanship here. It’s a work in progress, for sure, but the truth just simplifies everything.

David Cain November 17, 2015 at 9:11 am

It is such a relief to just let the truth be known, isn’t it? In Harris’ essay he talked about how easy it is to only have one version of the story to remember, compared to the complex show we’re always putting on when we think it’s okay to lie.

There’s a helpful adage in Buddhism to remind people how to speak to others. Always be asking yourself “Is it true? Is it kind? is it helpful?” It’s almost the perfect roadmap for good communication.

Abby L November 17, 2015 at 11:01 am

Thought-provoking article, David! Two thoughts came to mind, I hope you don’t mind me sharing them! I’ll separate them into two comments since they’re two different thoughts

1. I appreciate the unconventional thought experiment that you’re posing. More often, I hear its converse.
You’ve probably heard of the Ring of Gyges, which is a story told in one of Plato’s dialogues. The story goes, an ordinary farmer gets a ring that turns him invisible (very much like the one ring in Lord of the Rings). The discussion provokes the question, “What will you do if you can get away with anything?” (i.e. will you rape, pillage, do good deeds, snoop, etc.). This easily leads to the question of, “Is it better to be good or just to APPEAR good?” By granting absolute freedom, we are asked if we would really live a virtue for the virtue’s sake.

The thought lends itself to me in the article because it’s somewhat the converse of your challenge, which is, roughly, what would happen to the world if we “can’t lie”/ “can never get away with it”/ “have no option but to BE good”? It’s something to chew on.

For one, I suppose it rids honesty/ truthfulness of some measure of ‘moral achievement’ since will/ freedom is technically stripped from the situation. (For instance, it’s more admirable and illustrative of my willpower to keep my diet if I refuse to eat the Cheetos in front of me rather than the Cheetos sitting on a store, a drive away). It takes less character to tell the truth if everyone is technically compelled to say the truth.

But then again, wouldn’t it be wise to trade dubious reward of ‘moral achievement’ in light of what leaps the world can achieve with radical honesty?

Abby L. November 17, 2015 at 11:05 am

The matter of truth and honesty is muddled by the question of human complexity (namely, the unconscious/ phenomenon of self deception/ ambiguous feelings.)

For instance, what about the complex feelings one might imagine when one is asked, “Are you happy about your friend’s promotion?” You could be truthfully happy about your friend’s good tidings. But at the same time, you could also be worried about your career/ have issues about your self worth. There might be a smidgen of resentment. To complicate matters, what if you’re even aware of all these feelings? What would be the truth? What is an easy way to tell the truth?

When foraying to the field of feelings, it also sort of requires an aptitude of identifying and articulating feelings. Even if we are compelled to tell the truth– do we know it; do we know how to say it?

Abby L November 17, 2015 at 11:04 pm

*What if you’re NOT even aware of all these feelings? What if you only have a dim awareness of them?

Abby L November 17, 2015 at 11:04 pm

*What if you’re NOT even aware of all these feelings? What if you only have a dim awareness of them?

LennStar November 17, 2015 at 3:16 pm

Lets ignore the fact that I am a lot less optimistic about working lie detectors then your quoted scientists, as this is a technology that is “available in 20 years” for a long time, like fusion energy since 1960.

Lets ignore that most things aren’t black or white (like: someone my not be good now, but you can hear that he can be good with training).

Instead let me just ask an old question, I think from journalism:
Which truth do you want to detect?
My truth, your truth, the general accepted truth, the objective truth or what actually happened?

Kevin November 18, 2015 at 12:54 pm

In a dream I had a while ago, new medical technology was allowing humans to pay to “upgrade” their senses. Once the procedure for giving humans the same nasal acuity as a bloodhound was gaining popularity, society began to change rapidly! The procedure enabled these people to (undetectably) have, among other abilities, lie-detecting powers! It created a rift because the world was not ready for a few people to have such abilities. As you have in this article, I like to ponder the aspects of life that would change along with enhanced sensory input (or lie detection).

Anon November 18, 2015 at 11:13 pm

The recently deceased former German chancellor put it that way:”Honesty doesn’t demand you to tell everything you think. Honesty only demands you don’t say anything that you don’t think ” Helmut Schmidt

Genevieve Hawkins November 20, 2015 at 8:23 pm

I think this type of lie detection is already happening in a different sort of way with the advent of smart phones and video devices. It is becoming harder for public officials to lie, whether it be a politician getting fact checked immediately at a debate or a police officer’s version of events being contradicted by video evidence. Those in positions of power I suspect are both most likely to tell lies and the lies are most damaging to society as a whole. Imagine if in ancient times the guy in the tribe in charge of scouting for roving herds of animals lied and told the tribe the wildebeasts went this way when they went that way. He could put the entire tribe in danger of starvation and therefor his lie might get him exiled. Of course in such a situation, the tribal scout would realize that by lying he would be putting his life in danger too, so such a thing probably would not happen. Things have become so convoluted now that it is not easy for us to see how our lies damage the whole. But if money disappeared, all that would remain is social capital: i.e. a person’s integrity and honesty. In this era of mass corruption I think it will come up soon enough!

Mario Marinato November 26, 2015 at 3:41 pm

Not only we’d have to learn how to be honest without sounding rude, avoiding white lies, we’d also have to learn to listen to the truth. Both the speaker and the listener should learn that a negative affirmation is (or should be) only an acknowledgement of a given fact, not an evaluation of one’s value as a person.

Steve December 9, 2015 at 4:58 pm


I read something in New Scientist about the amount of times people lie (might have been from that same study) and was surprised. I try very hard not to lie and I really dislike even white lies (though the gift one is hard…)

But after reading that article, I thought “well, if everyone else does…” so I tried a little white lie and ended up in a relationship (the lie was about a dream that never actually happened, and I admitted to her that it was a lie very quickly after!) – so… white lies are social lubricant in the same way that small talk is, perhaps?

King Tomislav January 20, 2016 at 2:19 am

David I remember reading an e-book called The Popular Club, a guide to social skills for adults who have no social circle and therefore no friends. One thing it stressed was “power of selection”, eg if someone asks you out, don’t commit immediately, wait until the last minute to commit because a better offer may come around, and if you have already committed you will miss out on the better offer. This type of gamesmanship cheeses me off, yet the average Joe or Jane is more than willing to put up with it, or play the game themselves! I have Asperger’s, so it is freaking hard to tell if someone is being straight with me or telling lies (this is true even in the cases of people I trust, and there aren’t many).
If someone could not tell lies, or do the things that humans do that would typically be considered as crazy (think of Commander Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation), would they actually be better people? I think so.

Suzy February 9, 2016 at 5:11 am

This reminds me of a thought experiment I’ve dabbled in lately: What if there were NO WAY to get away with committing a crime without getting caught? Would people still commit crimes? This came to me as I noticed how often I responded to news reports of criminals being caught by security cameras by thinking, “How can anyone think they can commit a robbery/murder/kidnapping in public and think they won’t get caught on a security camera?” Then I wondered, if people KNEW they’d be caught–if technology were that perfect and ubiquitous, would people still commit crimes–out of desperation, anger, hatred? I’m sure now many criminals do what they do knowing full well they’re likely to get caught, but deciding that wreaking their havoc is worth the self-expression anyway. Or just acting in the moment, without thinking at all. Like not lying, not committing crimes is part of the social contract; if the social contract were 100% enforceable, what would the world be like? Perfect? Unbearable?

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