In “Lying,” Sam Harris challenges you to examine how often you are being deceptive with the people around you and asks you to consider what purpose your lies are serving. Do you lie to preserve goodwill in a relationship? To keep someone from worrying? To protect someone else? Harris suggests that although you might believe you’re telling white lies for a noble or moral reason, in the end, lying damages your integrity and makes others think twice about trusting you.
Why keep lying when telling the truth might get you the results you really want?
READ THIS BOOK SUMMARY IF YOU:
- Think a few “harmless” lies are sometimes necessary in business and relationships
- Are curious about how our willingness to lie impacts our culture
- Wonder if you should lie to someone to spare them discomfort
Lying is one of those things that everybody does, though most people wouldn’t readily admit it. Lies are extremely useful, whether you’re blaming the loss of your homework on your dog, attempting to avoid getting a parking ticket or just trying to be nice when someone gives you a gift you don’t like. Lying, it would seem, is not only handy; it’s a part of being human.
Okay, so what’s the problem?
Well, even the tiniest of lies plays a part in the normalization of a system of untruth, and can lead to much larger lies – lies that have the power to start wars or make people lose faith in science and research. In this book summary, you will learn why lying is a big problem for humanity and why we should do all in our power to start telling the truth, even if that means hurting your grandma’s feelings when she knits you a sweater three times too large.
In this summary of Lying by Sam Harris, this book summary also explains
- that lies have made us distrust the leaders of society;
- why witnessing someone you trust tell a lie has negative consequences; and
- that lying might seem simple but is actually an energy thief.
We all know the expected response to ethical questions about lies and truth-telling. From the time we’re children, most of us are taught that it’s wrong to lie and right to tell the truth. Yet even a child quickly learns to navigate the gray zones between lying and truth-telling, and we soon begin bending the truth in our favor to avoid punishments or gain rewards. Lying comes naturally to us.
In Lying, Sam Harris pushes us to think more carefully about the unintended results of lying by focusing not on big, consequential lies but instead on the cozy, little white lies most of us tell every day. We rationalize these lies, telling ourselves they’re necessary to spare someone’s feelings or avoid an uncomfortable confrontation. We find ourselves saying things like, “No, of course you don’t look fat!” or “Yes, that meatloaf was delicious.” Nobody’s the wiser, and nobody gets hurt, right?
But Harris proposes that such little white lies have a transformative power on our work, relationships, and reality. So you should think twice the next time you’re tempted to tell one. In this book summary we’ll follow Harris’s careful consideration of the ethics of lying through the following points:
- What is a lie? Why people think of little white lies as harmless and big lies as more consequential
- Types of lies: The different forms of deception, misleading, and lying
- The value of integrity: How lies change our relationships and transactions
- Is it wrong to lie? The ethics of lying and truth-telling
After you consider all the white lies you tell to smooth things over and make life easier, you might think twice about how deceptive you’re being to the people around you. Harris not only addresses the habit of telling lies but offers suggestions for how to tell the truth more frequently, kindly, and tactfully.
What Is a Lie?
Often, when we think of lies, we tell ourselves that there are many degrees of dishonesty and that at times there are good reasons to lie. At one end of the spectrum are misleading statements that contain mostly truths, white lies told to smooth things over, and lies of omission. At the other end of the spectrum are malicious, repetitive lies.
But in Lying, Harris proposes that all lies contain a profound, powerful betrayal of another person, because by lying, we’re controlling what that person knows. We create a reality for the other person to live in while we’re free to make our choices using the very knowledge that we’ve withheld from them.
What’s at stake when we’re all telling lies, whether big or small? What can we expect from each other when we know how easily we’ll skirt the truth with a white lie? Are we walking around half-suspecting that everyone else is lying to us as much as we’re lying to them? We must consider what kind of world this creates.
First, what do we consider a lie? What about when you see someone you know in a supermarket but you’re in a hurry and pretend you don’t see them? Or someone asks how you are and you reply “fine,” even in a miserable moment. Maybe you wear colored contacts lenses or some other prosthesis to change your appearance. Harris calls these kinds of small deceptions elisions. They’re not true lies in the strictest sense, but they’re intentionally crafted to hide important facts from others. Sometimes you might say something you mistakenly believe to be true. Harris would say that’s an inaccuracy, not a falsehood. The key lies with intention.
A lie involves choosing to cause someone to believe something untrue when they’re expecting you to be honest. A lie restricts someone else’s ability to know something that you know, thus impeding them from acting in accordance with the most accurate reality. Lying removes the possibility for the other person to form a correct understanding of what’s happening. This places them in the disadvantaged position of having to make plans and choices within a context they believe to be factual but is not. This is the crux of the lie.
Types of Lies
It would be unreasonable to expect everyone to tell the complete truth about everything because, as Harris recognizes, telling every possible fact on a topic is impossible. Therefore, truthfulness simply entails correctly representing what we believe to be true. Even representing our level of uncertainty about a topic is a way of honestly presenting it to someone. For example, if someone asks if you’ve heard about a neighbor’s business failure, you can honestly reply that you’re aware of it but you don’t know the details (if you honestly don’t, of course). It’s always the intention behind the statement that matters most: Are we restricting or enhancing a person’s sphere of understanding?
Harris suggests that even seemingly subtle lies have unintended effects. Staying silent, hiding a defect in a product, pretending not to hear something, making a promise you don’t plan to keep, exaggerating, deflecting — each of these is born from the intention to keep another person in the dark and to put the liar in a slightly more powerful position. Elaborate lies — such as forgeries, thefts, counterfeits, and intimate betrayals — require more of an ongoing effort to sustain them, making the wrongdoing even more serious. Yet the intention of trying to gain from another’s limited perspective is the same as with subtle lies.
Even mostly truthful people lie to those closest to them at times because they believe that little white lies spare embarrassment, generate goodwill, or smooth things over. But as Harris continues to argue, any lie that intentionally deprives someone of the truth ultimately damages interpersonal relationships.
When we intend for someone to understand that a falsehood is the truth, we might believe we have very good reasons for wanting them to accept this falsehood. But upon reflection, wouldn’t you feel betrayed if you found out someone had done this to you? Pointless white lies, when discovered, are often the most unsettling. It’s so much simpler to just tell the truth.
The Value of Integrity
Harris states that choosing to lie reveals something about you: It shows that you’re willing to put your own comfort before someone else’s. When we lie to avoid shame, embarrassment, or difficult consequences, we compromise our integrity.
Take this example of a woman who was visiting a friend. Traveling with her young son, she had no time to pick up a gift for her friend at the hotel gift shop. Noticing the luxury bath products and soaps in her room, she chose to give those to her friend instead. The gesture appears to be one of goodwill directed toward the friend — until she tells her friend that she purchased them at a shop on the way over. Her intention isn’t simply to give the friend a gift but to create a different reality for the friend, making her believe the gift-giver is generous and thoughtful. When the little boy reveals the truth, he also reveals how easily the mother will lie unnecessarily.
The two friends may laugh this moment off, but it still has consequences for their relationship. One can understand another person’s impulse to appear generous. Yet the friend confided that after this incident, she would always wonder if the other woman was lying again to suit her own needs. A distance, however subtle, was created with that white lie.
In contrast to this example, Harris tells a personal story of a much larger lie. When he was a boy, his mother began to have concerning symptoms: tremors, cramped muscles, headaches, and other ailments. After undergoing testing, the doctor told her she was free and clear — but this wasn’t the truth. The doctor wanted to spare her the devastating diagnosis, so he told her husband, Harris’s father, the truth: His wife had MS. For the following year, his father told no one. But as Harris’ mother grew worse, she went to the library, researched her symptoms, and realized she had MS. She, in turn, hid her discovery from Harris’ father, wanting to spare him the painful news. No one told the children, who eventually found out by accident — an event that was even more difficult to bear because of the long deception involved.
No one can doubt that the doctor, mother, and father in this situation all believed in the moral justifications for their lies. Each believed they were sparing others pain and anxiety, and they probably considered their lying a selfless way of ensuring another’s sense of well-being for as long as possible. Certainly, this was why they didn’t tell the children. Yet with the benefit of an outsider’s perspective, most of us can see how counterproductive and even harmful this choice was. Harris’ mother and father bore the awful burden alone for a year when they could have been confiding in and supporting each other and preparing their children for the changes to come.
Harris notes that the shock of learning his mother’s diagnosis would have been difficult to bear. However, the shock of being kept in the dark about her condition for a full year, and only discovering it accidentally from someone who wasn’t aware it was a secret, had lasting consequences on his understanding of his mother and father. Indeed, it even made him doubt his value to them and their love for him — the opposite effect the parents wanted.
In these examples, we see the consequences of both a minute, short-lived lie about bathroom soaps and a devastating, long-term lie about a mother’s chronic illness. Both ultimately resulted not in an interpersonal strengthening of goodwill and well-being, as those who lied had hoped, but in distance and distrust. For many years, Harris couldn’t be sure he was getting accurate information from his mother about her illness, and she likely wondered the same about the information she was getting from her husband and doctor. Each was left more isolated with their doubts than if the difficult subject was faced with candor from the start.
Is It Wrong to Lie?
Through many examples, Harris’s book demonstrates the various kinds of lies we tell and the negative consequences they create. In Harris’s view, it’s decidedly wrong to lie. In all cases, there’s a measure of truth to be told, and we must endeavor to preserve as much truthfulness as we can in all circumstances.
Imagine that you receive a truly awful present in front of a group of people. Caught off-guard and not wanting to embarrass the giver, your first impulse might be to respond with polite falsehoods. But Harris would advise against this. Instead, what if you responded with polite truthfulness? Instead of “Wow, I really like this!” — a completely untrue statement that offers the giver the delighted response they want — consider saying, “Wow, this is so thoughtful. I really appreciate your kindness in picking this out.” As Harris emphasizes, there’s always a measure of truth to be told.
What do we gain by being more straightforward with other people? Genuineness, trust, authenticity, and mutual respect. We tell a white lie because we believe it’s kinder and gentler than addressing a concerning reality. But to do this forecloses on the possibility of an honest, potentially transformative interaction.
Perhaps you have a friend who’s struggling to make it as an actor and who often asks for your reassurance that they’re just one part away from making it big. By continuing to encourage their hope (when it seems very unlikely that they’ll succeed), you’re taking away the chance to have a reflective conversation with this person. Such a conversation might help them confront certain difficult realities about their chances. A white lie allows you both to feel better — but only momentarily. In the end, you haven’t helped this person. In fact, you may have contributed to devastating disappointment down the road.
There are two types of lie; neither should be told.
Remember being told never to tell lies as a child? No one wants to be dubbed a liar, and while most people wouldn’t dare tell a monumental lie, many often tell little lies that they perceive to be insignificant.
The majority of people avoid big lies because of the disastrous effects they can have. Such lies can end careers or result in jail time, can ruin a person’s life or even throw entire societies into disarray.
Despite the detrimental effects of big lies, governments and the wider media continue to spread them. This has created a general feeling of distrust toward world leaders on a global scale. For instance, justification for the Iraq War hinged, in large part, on a lie; the Bush administration claimed that the country was hiding weapons of mass destruction – a claim that turned out to be untrue. This blatant deception caused many people to become skeptical of foreign policy in the United States.
Funnily enough, little lies are usually not regarded with the same moral rectitude. In fact, people generally think such lies are okay, since they’re often used to spare the feelings of others. But white lies do damage, too.
Imagine a family getting ready to host guests for a week. Prior to the guests’ arrival, the husband says to his wife in the presence of their young daughter that he wishes they weren’t coming to stay. The guests arrive and thank the man for his hospitality, and he chirpily responds that he’s happy to see them – but his daughter pipes up and repeats what he said earlier.
This clearly puts the man in an awkward position. He can’t say that he’s not happy to see his guests; however, denying what he previously said also sets a bad example for his child. If he had welcomed his guests in more ambiguous terms – by say something like “That’s why we have guest rooms!” – this whole situation could have been avoided.
Little lies may have less of an impact than big lies, but, in the long run, they can also have devastating results.
Lies have a negative effect on your relationships.
You’d most likely do anything for those you truly care about. If, for instance, your relationship with your spouse, or with your parents, was in jeopardy, you’d probably be willing to tell a lie if you thought it could salvage the relationship. However, lying to someone close to you almost always destroys that closeness.
The problem with lying is that it erodes trust. Even if you’re not the one who’s being lied to, the fact that you know a person is capable of lying is bound to make you distrust them.
Say you witness a friend or a family member express a false opinion to someone else. You’ll feel uneasy, because you’ll immediately wonder how many times they’ve fed you such lies. And if they can lie about such a small thing so easily and convincingly, then can they lie when it comes to more serious issues, too?
The truth is, you want to be able to rely on those close to you. A best friend wouldn’t let you leave the house in unflattering clothes, and family members who truly care about you wouldn’t let you pursue a career that’s not right for you.
Telling the truth can be very difficult. You may be privy to information that could cause someone a great deal of pain or completely change their life. Such knowledge comes with a lot of unwanted responsibility, but it’s your duty to tell the truth.
Imagine that you know your friend has been cheated on but you’re reluctant to tell them. You feel guilty for withholding the information, so you make excuses not to see them. Additionally, you’re tacitly allowing your friend to unwittingly remain in a toxic relationship.
Although telling the truth may cause your friend great pain in the short term, it will vastly improve their well-being in the long term. Not only will your truthfulness allow them to make an educated decision about the relationship; it will be proof positive that they have at least one honest and supportive friend.
Lies can cause mental stress.
Have you ever been so impossibly deep in a lie that you just know you’re going to be found out? This feeling of entanglement goes hand in hand with a lot of stress and anxiety, and the only way to avoid it is to always tell the truth.
It takes a considerable amount of effort to lie, since you have to keep track of everything you’ve fabricated. The truth, on the other hand, requires no monitoring whatsoever.
No matter the nature of the lie you’re telling, you’ll tend to relay different information to different people depending on how you think they’ll respond. This is where the confusion stems from: you’re destined to forget what you’ve said and to whom.
And the situation can get even more complicated. You’ll start worrying about whether the people who you’ve told conflicting stories to will start talking among themselves and notice the inconsistencies. You may have lied in an attempt to protect them from unpleasant information, but being exposed as a liar will far outweigh any good that your lie may have generated. Therefore, it’s better to tell everyone the honest truth and leave nothing to be revealed.
Frankly, maintaining a facade is hard work. When you lie, you’re essentially preventing another person from accessing reality. It’s ludicrous to think that a person has any right to prohibit someone else from knowing the truth, or to determine which information they should be permitted to have access to.
As important as it is to refrain from lying to others, it’s also necessary to not lie to yourself. When you’re disingenuous about who you really are, you’re forced to continually present a false image of yourself to the outside world. This can have a devastating effect on your self-esteem – you’ll become increasingly dependent on the maintenance of that image and less connected to who you truly are.
For a better world, we should avoid telling lies of any kind.
To improve your own life and that of others, you should vow to no longer lie – it’ll be difficult but entirely worth it.
If you even allow yourself to tell the smallest of lies, the act will become natural to you and it can eventually develop into a perilous habit. There’s the risk that the truth will become so alien to you that you’ll find it challenging to be honest – even when it’s necessary for your own well-being or for that of the people around you.
Lying is also dangerous because people tend to remember lies and wholeheartedly believe them. Take the case of Andrew Wakefield, a doctor who knowingly published false research that linked vaccinations to the development of autism in children. Although he had his medical license revoked and his research publicly disproved, many people still hold fast to this lie, since they already accepted it as true.
Issues like this occur so readily because lying is currently seen as normal behavior. By ceasing to tell tiny lies, the likelihood of big, damaging lies being told will decrease, because lying will eventually cease to be the norm.
If you work to promote trust instead, you’ll help to improve the state of affairs on both a personal and a political level. Next time, tell the person who bought you an imperfect gift how you truly feel – that way, they’ll be able to spend their money better in the future, and they’ll also have greater respect for you because you were honest.
Imagine if politicians began telling the truth. They would not only win the respect of society; they’d also create a more trusting and open environment on a global scale. This in turn would encourage more forthrightness and, eventually, lying might die out entirely. And that, in all honesty, sounds like a pretty positive future.
In Lying, Harris makes a convincing argument for the beauty of the truth and explains how lies, which might provide immediate comfort, undermine interpersonal relationships. Candid feedback can be empowering and allow someone to change course, and frank discussions cultivate deeper trust and openness in any situation. When we’re honest with our criticism, the weight of our praise is much stronger.
Even little white lies are intended to deceive someone, not for their own protection but for our benefit. Harris believes that it’s reasonable to expect the truth from others. When someone who’s expecting the truth from you is met with a lie, you haven’t held up your end of the bargain. We must look for the path of truth in every interaction and question, so we can offer the most honest feedback possible. In doing so, we get what we really want: authentic, genuine, and trusting relationships.
To stay motivated in your truthfulness, keep in mind the principles we’ve explored in this book summary:
- What is a lie? Why people think of little white lies as harmless and big lies as more consequential.
- Types of lies: The different forms of deception, misleading, and lying.
- The value of integrity: How lies change our relationships and transactions.
- Is it wrong to lie? The ethics of lying and truth-telling.
The key message in this book:
No matter how small or large, lies should never be told. You may sometimes think the lie you’re about to tell is harmless, but remember: it isn’t. It will negatively affect you and those around you to an unforeseeable extent. For your own benefit and the greater good of the world, it’s better to stick to the truth.
About the author
Sam Harris’ work has been published in more than 15 languages. He is the author of the bestsellers Letter to a Christian Nation and The End of Faith, which won the PEN Award for Nonfiction in 2005. He holds a doctorate in neuroscience from UCLA.
Sam Harris is the author of the New York Times bestsellers, The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation, The Moral Landscape, and Free Will. The End of Faith won the 2005 PEN Award for Nonfiction.
Mr. Harris’s writing has been published in more than 15 languages. He and his work have been discussed in The New York Times, Time, Scientific American, Nature, Newsweek, Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, and many other journals. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Economist, Newsweek, The Times (London), The Boston Globe, The Atlantic, The Annals of Neurology, and elsewhere.
Mr. Harris is a cofounder and the CEO of Project Reason, a nonprofit foundation devoted to spreading scientific knowledge and secular values in society. He received a degree in philosophy from Stanford University and a Ph.D. in neuroscience from UCLA.
Personal Growth, Business Culture, Philosophy of Ethics and Morality, Popular Social Psychology and Interactions, Personal Transformation Self-Help, Science, Personal Development, Sociology, Religion, Social Science
Table of Contents
What is A Lie?
The Mirror of Honesty
Two Types of Lies
Lies in Extremis
Appendix 1: An Interview with Ron A. Howard
Appendix 2: Ten Questions from Readers
As it was in Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, and Othello, so it is in life. Most forms of private vice and public evil are kindled and sustained by lies. Acts of adultery and other personal betrayals, financial fraud, government corruption—even murder and genocide—generally require an additional moral defect: a willingness to lie.
In Lying, best-selling author and neuroscientist Sam Harris argues that we can radically simplify our lives and improve society by merely telling the truth in situations where others often lie. He focuses on “white” lies—those lies we tell for the purpose of sparing people discomfort—for these are the lies that most often tempt us. And they tend to be the only lies that good people tell while imagining that they are being good in the process.
“This essay is quite brilliant. (I was hoping it would be, so I wouldn’t have to lie.) I honestly loved it from beginning to end. Lying is the most thought-provoking read of the year.” — Ricky Gervais
“Humans have evolved to lie well, and no doubt you’ve seen the social lubrication at work. In many cases, we might not think of it as a true “lie”: perhaps a “white lie” once in a blue moon, the omission of a sensitive detail here and there, false encouragement of others when we see no benefit in dashing someone’s hopes, and the list goes on. In Lying, Sam Harris demonstrates how to benefit from being brutally—but pragmatically—honest. It’s a compelling little book with a big impact.” — Tim Ferriss, author of the New York Times bestsellers, The 4-Hour Body, The 4-Hour Workweek, and The 4-Hour Chef
“In this brief but illuminating work, Sam Harris applies his characteristically calm and sensible logic to a subject that affects us all—the human capacity to lie. And by the book’s end, Harris compels you to lead a better life because the benefits of telling the truth far outweigh the cost of lies—to yourself, to others, and to society.” — Neil deGrasse Tyson, Astrophysicist, American Museum of Natural History