Truthfulness in Real Life
Experiments in a High School Classroom
Most of us agree that we should tell the truth. But it’s hard to be consistently truthful in daily life. If we’re not paying careful attention, we forget, we fudge, we let things go, and we say it’s normal. We’re tired, we’re distracted, and our lies are polite, small, and unintentional. Yet we expect children and young people to be honest.
This issue was uppermost in my mind when I first started teaching high school several years ago. By that point in my life, it was clear to me that whatever lies and self-deception I had engaged in over the years always came back to haunt me. I had also come to realize that many of the enduring works of literature were about the self-destructiveness of lies and the beauty of truth. But how could I transmit this knowledge to my students? How could I convince my hard-boiled, New York teenagers of the benefits of non-lying?
We live in a society where lying seems to be a way of life, where public officials perjure themselves under oath on national TV to preserve their positions of power. No wonder many teenagers think that the only problem with lying is getting caught! The idea of establishing internal standards of truth that go beyond external mores is so foreign to most young people that when I tried to discuss it, my students simply tuned me out or argued relentlessly.
I finally caught their attention by coming up with a way of getting them to experience the consequences of lying and to understand that their bodies cannot lie, even if their mouths do. For most, it is quite a revelation; a first glimmering of a new dimension of themselves. It is an “aha” experience which they remember vividly, even years later.
What Kinds of Lies Do You Tell?
So how does an English teacher get street-smart, cynical, “sophisticated” teenagers to pay attention to aspects of themselves they have largely ignored? I begin by asking them what kinds of lies they are accustomed to telling. This sparks their interest, because many of them are proud of getting away with lying. As they talk about their lies, we make a list that usually includes malicious lies, lies to escape punishment, exaggerations, “white” lies, and lies told to protect the ego. Lying is so natural to my students that few of them have ever examined why they lie or how they are affected–both psychologically and physiologically–by the lies they tell.
How Does Your Body Feel About Your Lies?
When the list is complete, I ask them to talk about how their bodies react when they are lying. During this discussion, the students realize that, when they lie, they avoid eye contact; their palms get sweaty; they fidget; their tone of voice changes; they get butterflies or knots in their stomach or feel tension in their shoulders, face, or other parts of their bodies. Some experience a feeling of tightness around the heart.
Once they become aware of the physical consequences of lying, they are ready for the next step–keeping a “truth” journal for seven consecutive days. I ask them to think back on the day’s events at the end of each day and record one or two lies they told that day and the physiological effects they noticed. If they did not lie that day, they’re asked to note that too. I warn my students that even though they might get excellent marks by lying in their journals about their lies, they will cheat themselves out of an interesting experience by doing so.
Do You Want to Stop Lying?
When the week is over, the students write a paper about their experience. As part of this assignment, they recount one incident of lying and the accompanying physiological reactions. Then they are asked to find a pattern in the lies they tell and to decide whether those lies benefit or harm them. I also ask them to decide if they want to stop lying. This isn’t an easy question for a 15- or 16-year old who has spent years lying to escape from responsibilities, difficult situations, and other unpleasantness. At the end of the paper, I ask them to draw a conclusion about human nature based on their observations of themselves. This forces them to think about the larger implications of their self-discoveries.
Here’s a sample of what they find. A 16-year-old girl writes:
I found out during my seven-day study that, when I lie, I…feel different. My heart begins to beat very quickly, my hands get sweaty, and I feel pressure physically and in my mind, because my conscience bothers me…I also learned that the lies I tell reflect the kind of person I am. Looking back at my truth diary, most of the time I lied because I am very self-conscious. I tend to tell these types of lies very often because I guess I sometimes have low self-esteem. Lying creates a “new me” that I hope everyone will like, because I don’t think they will like the real me.
I don’t think it would be to my advantage if I hung on to the lies I now tell. I’d rather learn not to lie, because it would mean I’m growing up and not using lies as a “security blanket.” As a wise person once told me, “Growing up is learning to live with yourself. It is a long process that each of us must face in order to fulfill our potential.”
A 15-year old gives another perspective:
For me, lying is an experience that can vary widely in its effects. If I lie intentionally in order to hurt someone or to put blame about something on someone else, I feel like a louse… I tend to become very restless and defensive. I will feel a sudden heat wave, and often turn red. Finally, I will become very paranoid, as if everyone were watching me…I told a lie because I knew my mom would nag me to do my homework, if she knew I was playing with the computer. So that particular lie saved me a lot of trouble.
I feel that the biggest problem in trying to eliminate these lies from my life is that I would have to put forth more effort to accomplish the same result. In the above example, to get the same result without lying would mean I would really have to be doing my homework. That would be an effort on my part.
Even so, I would prefer to go through life learning how not to lie, because lying destroys your moral standing with yourself and others. If you lie, other people will not be able to take your word of honor because you might be lying. You will also lose your self-respect because you know deep down inside, you are a liar, someone undeserving of trust. I want to be someone trustworthy, because if I am not, I will be no better than a thief.