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The Truth About Lies
Is it okay to tell an occasional white lie? And how do children learn to fib? We've gone to an expert to find out just how lying impacts our health.
By Chris Iliades, MD
Medically Reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH
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Sir Walter Scott wrote about the tangled webs we weave when we begin to deceive. Just look at the endless parade of politicians and famous sports figures who have gotten tangled up in their lies. But research shows that lies affect more than our reputation — they can even affect our health and longevity.
"Research has linked telling lies to an increased risk of cancer, increased risk of obesity, anxiety, depression, addiction, gambling, poor work satisfaction, and poor relationships,” says Deirdre Lee Fitzgerald, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at Eastern Connecticut State University in Willimantic.
So do liars create physical and emotional problems for themselves — or do these problems make people more likely to lie? “In most cases it's a combination, and in many cases these problems feed into each other," says Fitzgerald.
How Lies Impact Your Health
The main way that telling lies impacts health and longevity is through increased stress. Lying is taxing both physically and emotionally. Because one lie leads to another, you can be forced into a nerve-wracking cycle of lies that becomes harder and harder to keep track of. Long-term exposure to stress can lead to serious health problems and can decrease longevity.
Lying also can lead to:
- Depression and anxiety."When people lie to avoid dealing with emotions or problems, the same problems continue to occur and get worse. It just makes for more emotional work. This often leads to depression and anxiety," says Fitzgerald.
- Damaged relationships."Lies [hurt] relationships by damaging trust,” says Fitzgerald. “Without trust there is no intimacy. Lying increases the distance between people, sometimes irreparably."
- Shattered self-esteem.It's hard to feel good about yourself when you are living a lie. Lies can seem like an easy way out at first, but when you can't look at yourself in the mirror, your emotional health can't survive.
And then there is the issue of substance abuse. A teen that lies about using drugs or alcohol increases his risk of using it more, while decreasing his chance of dealing with it. In both cases, the lies impact the teen’s physical and emotional health. Once you are in the grip of substance abuse or a gambling habit, lies are all but inevitable.
Why Do People Tell Lies?
People lie to:
- Avoid feeling bad or to avoid a bad consequence
- Feel better and get rewarded
- Make other people like or admire them
Fitzgerald says lying often starts with those little white lies — the kind that we rationalize as being harmless. “Some might define a 'harmless' lie as one that is not likely to be recurrent and does not affect an important relationship,” she Fitzgerald. “But people tell white lies for the same basic reasons that they tell other lies, and the results can be similar. Even white lies can lead to a cycle of bad consequences.”
4 Reasons Children Lie
Are children taught to lie by their parents? "Yes," says Fitzgerald. Parents may teach children to lie by their own behaviors:
- "When a child hears a parent lie to get out of a social engagement, they learn that lying is acceptable," explains Fitzgerald.
- Lying children may lie to avoid a parent's anger or disappointment. "When a child perceives the price of the truth is too high, they learn to lie," warns Fitzgerald.
- Children also learn to lie when they are not taught alternatives. Children need to be taught how to express their feelings in a safe way.
- Another reason children lie: They may be trying to get attention if they do not get enough praise or recognition at home.
How to Live a Lie-Free Life
Fitzgerald suggests these tips for living life with fewer lies:
- Recognize and teach the value of the truth and set a good example of truth-telling for your children.
- Actively practice and talk about making good choices when it comes to telling the truth. Just like lies, telling the truth becomes habit forming.
- Be actively engaged in your relationships with children and other adults so that you can demonstrate trust and recognize truth.
- Think long-term instead of short-term. Lies may be effective in the short term, but help children and others see that they have many long-term negative consequences.
People learn to tell lies early in life. Lying children may be following the examples of their parents or may be lying to avoid their parent's anger. Even white lies can become habit forming. And it’s true – truth is a much better long-term strategy and can lead to greater longevity. You’ll avoid the physical and emotional stress that comes from telling lies.
Video: (Dis)Honesty: The Truth About Lies | Educational Documentary | CNBC
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