Transcript for Little White Lies - Sam Harris

Anne Strainchamps: Do I look okay in this? We all know the answer, right? You look great in it, even if that's not quite true. Most of us tell little white lies from time to time. Your new outfit looks good. The chicken liver was delicious. Is there anything wrong with telling the occasional white lie? Steve Paulson asked Sam Harris. He's a philosopher and neuroscientist and the author of a new book called Lying. Steve Paulson: I have to ask you about white lies, the little fibs that lubricate social relationships, you know, saying nice things about the coworker's new hair style or dress which you actually think is hideous. Is there anything wrong with that? Sam Harris: Yeah. Just imagine how the rest of the day plays out. You actually think it's hideous, you lie to this person's face telling them how beautiful the dress is, and then you might very well divulge to another person when that first person leaves what an awful dress that is, and you've just established that you're this kind of person who really can't be trusted to give his actual opinion when it's awkward to do so. Do you want to be that kind of person? I don't want to be that kind of person, and if I ask someone whose opinion I value what they think of something I actually want to know what they think. Part of this problem is held in place by people who ask for opinions when they really just want praise. They don't actually want to know the truth. They don't want to know how they're perceived, and so there are people who will be offended when you are actually straight with them. But you can begin to train the people in your life to realize that you're the kind of person who will tell them what you think. It's not that you're deliberately trying to hurt people's feelings. You're trying to give people the information that you would want to have if you were in their position. Paulson: You might not want that information. There's another way to look at this. You are basically taking a very literal approach to human relationships. The question is whether honesty is always the best way to connect with other people because the other way to looks at this is you could say they're not really asking for your opinion. It's all about social bonding, that little chitchat to establish more intimacy. Harris: I'm not advocating a kind of tourettic inability to censor yourself or to be civil or to be tactful. It's not that, and there are occasions where the subtext really carries the meaning. So if someone seems to be asking for your literal opinion but what you know or believe you know is that they're asking just to be reassured, they just want a hug, they just want to know that you love them--or whatever it is--and if you think that the subtext really is the message and that the text is just distraction then fine, but then you can honestly address the subtext. But it's greatly clarifying for everyone to just be the kind of person who will say what you think because the moment you realize that you're on the same team with the people you care about, and these don't have to be your best friends, you know, can care about the well being of virtually everyone you meet, then you just have to ask yourself: what information would I want in there? What is true and useful? When you find yourself tempted to just lie outright I think you've failed to collaborate with this person. You don't feel like you're on their team anymore. You're protecting your team. You're just avoiding the awkwardness of saying something that might not be comfortable to hear, but we really do our friends no favors when we fail to give them information that we believe we have about how they're appearing in the world, how they're performing. When someone asks you to criticize their book or their artwork... when someone's asking your opinion, to fail to give it is not a sign of friendship. It's just emotionally easier when your opinion is that you don't like it. Paulson: It seems to me that if you're going to make this kind of commitment to total honesty you need a lot of emotional intelligence to be able to do that. Harris: Yeah. Paulson: So that you don't alienate that person. It's how you phrase something. It's the tone that you have. It sort of has to be just right, otherwise it's so easy to come off as sounding self-righteous and alienating. Harris: But, also, you need a nuanced view of what the truth actually is. For instance, there are many situations where you're asked to give your opinion but your opinion isn't some unbiased window onto the nature of reality. Your opinion is just your opinion. So if you don't happen to like a dress that doesn't mean the dress is objectively ugly, so you can discount the value of your opinion in realtime. The moment you're telling the truth you can always refine what you say. If the first thing that comes out of your mouth doesn't sound exactly right, you can say, "Well, actually that's not what I mean. I mean to say X." You can keep just shaping it in conversation. Now, a lie doesn't perform that way. A lie is just this brittle thing that you have to keep track of to make sure that you're not misrepresenting it later on so that people don't notice that you're lying. The truth can always just be found in conversation. It's immensely relieving of a kind of anxiety that I didn't even know I had, to know that when I go into situations I'm just going to tell the truth. There's nothing to calculate for. This especially goes to misrepresenting yourself. It's one thing to talk about other people's clothes and haircuts, to give them advice, but the people who misrepresent themselves are carrying this burden of having to pretend to be someone they're not, often in very subtle but still insidious ways. There's a whole facade of deception that you can just cut right through as long as you're willing to be yourself in a conversation. Paulson: Is this something that you've had to work out yourself, the fact that you are so interested in this whole question of lying and honesty? Have you sort of changed your thinking about this or taken this to a deeper, more personal level in your own life? Harris: Well, it was something that actually came very early for me or earlier than any of my other published interests. As a freshman at Stanford I took a course with this professor who actually still teaches the same course, Ron Howard, who's in the engineering economic systems department. He taught several courses on ethics and one was just on whether it's ever ethical to lie. That was the single question that organized the course. I frankly don't remember what I thought about lying before I took this course, but I came out the other side of this thing. It was like a machine for producing people who then felt very uncomfortable lying. I came out just amazed. The analogy I give somewhere in the book is that I felt like I had discovered a bomb at the center of my life. I had been given the tools to diffuse it before it went off. Then I saw this bomb going off in everyone else's life in both real and fictional, in literature, in the news, in the people around me. I saw the way people were damaging their reputations, damaging the public conversation, damaging their relationships by lying. So once I got my head straight about this around when I was 18, 19 it was a huge relief. I'm just writing about it now but it's been something that has been true for me for a couple of decades now. Strainchamps: Steve Paulson talking with Sam Harris, the author of Lying. We're pausing here for a spoiler alert. Parents, if you celebrate Christmas and you have young children you might want to make sure there aren't any kids around because Steve's about to mention... Paulson: Santa Claus. What do you say when your five-year-old daughter asks you if Santa is real? Harris: Yeah. Strangely, this was the most common question I got from initial readers of my book. I actually heard from many people who seemed to anticipate this who remembered what it was like to find out that their parents had been lying to them for years every Christmas and how destabilizing they found that to be. They felt emotionally wounded by the fact that these people who were ostensibly the closest people to them and the most trustworthy people in the universe had been lying over and over again in ways that they could not detect. As a parent, I have absolutely no temptation to lie to my daughter about Santa Claus. First of all, she loves Christmas. She loves the fiction of Christmas, and everyone knows 364 days a year that fiction is rewarding and immensely satisfying for kids. So we don't lie about Harry Potter, and Tolkien, and we don't lie about Halloween, and Superman, and Batman. All of these things can be totally captivating for kids. Arguably, many of them would be more captivating if we'd lied about them. If you said that, yes, the dragons in Middle Earth are real and you might see them any day now, okay, well, you could get a four, five, six-year-old to be perpetually on his or her guard for dragons. That would be captivating. I see absolutely no evidence in my daughter's life that she would be better off believing that Santa is real. Strainchamps: Sam Harris is a philosopher and neuroscientist. He and Steve were talking about Sam's new book which is called Lying. ["Santa Clause is Coming to Town" plays So You better watch out You better not cry You better not pout I'm telling you why Santa Claus is coming to town He's making a list, Checking it twice; Gonna find out who's naughty or nice. Santa Claus is coming to town He sees you when you're sleeping He knows when you're awake He knows if you've been bad or good So be good for goodness sake You better watch out You better not cry You better not pout I'm telling you why Santa Claus is coming to town ]

Comments for this interview

white lies (joel robbin, 02/26/2014 - 11:24am)

Mr. Harris avoids what is the real issue in this problem. What should one say if one has no opinion?

Santa (Robert, 02/25/2014 - 10:47am)

I was ten years old, and getting derision from other 5th graders, when my parents finally told me there was no Santa. I remember asking; does that mean there is no Easter Bunny. It was painful at the time. I wondered why my parents had lied to me for so long.

Fascinating. Not enough people write about honesty. (steve sexauer, 02/23/2014 - 8:10pm)

My one complaint about this book is that it's too short. Sam avoids pointing out that the state, and the police shouldn't be lying, he seems to think lying is only bad for the average joe, He gives lip service to corporate and media lying and treachery and focuses on how you're making a big mistake lying by complementing someone. A good read and worth every penny, but a woefully inadequate view of honesty.