SUMMARY: Humans learn to lie instinctively, but generally frown on all but a few kinds of lies.
(About a 5 minute read)
Many people who do not believe humans have much in the way of instincts confuse instincts with reflexes.
A reflex is a fixed response to a given stimulus. No matter how often the stimulus occurs, the reflex is the same each time. Tap someone on the knee just so and their knee jerks. Do it again, and again their knee jerks. And that’s pretty much it for reflexes.
Instincts are different. For one thing, they involve learning. Your knee doesn’t get better at jerking with practice. Nor does it learn to jerk in more ways than one. But an instinct for, say, tool use is open to a person learning how to make or use a whole variety of tools.
In effect, instincts are prompts for learning. An instinct for tool use, for instance, is a prompt to learn how to use tools. An instinct for language is a prompt to learn how to speak. And so forth.
Instincts also tend to have windows during which time they open the door to learning. Some windows last longer than others. But when a window closes, it is much harder than when it is open to learn that behavior. Children readily pick up languages. But the language instinct apparently closes around the age of 12, after which it becomes laborious to learn a new language.
Humans have at least dozens and perhaps hundreds of instincts. Think of some human behavior that is found everywhere — in every culture and society. Generally speaking, it is unlikely that behavior was culturally transmitted to people. Instead, it is probably instinctual unless it’s a reflex like laughter.
One human instinct that many people wish humans didn’t have is lying. The instinct seems to first become active in small children of a certain age, and the window for it might not close thereafter for several years — if actually at all.
I believe one can, with a thought, easily see how lying evolved in us. It seems most likely there were two main driving forces in its evolution. First, the need to outwit other animals — both prey and predators. And second, the advantages of outwitting each other.
In a fight, a physically weaker human can often be more than a match for a physically stronger one if he or she is the much better liar. Predictable blows are relatively easily avoided or blocked, but a feint before an unexpected blow can open the door.
Given how much time we spend practicing lying as children, it seems almost odd that any of us turn into relatively honest adults. But I think there at least a few of us who almost never lie about anything serious. I myself might fall into that category these days, but if so, the reason isn’t a noble one. I have a lifestyle now in which I almost never find myself in circumstances where it would be to my advantage to tell a serious lie.
I image today if I had to lie, I would be very good at it, but I certainly was anything but good at it growing up. I got away with it so rarely that I almost gave up trying. By high school I had such a reputation for honesty that I could get away with bloody murder if I wanted to. I know because I told perhaps two or three whoppers back then, and each time I was able to quickly convince people who had every rational reason to believe I had lied that I was far too honest to have told the lies!
There is one way in which I do lie these days: I now and then lie to myself. Everything from “I’ll do that tomorrow” to “I’m better than that”. That sort of self-deception does have a price, though. It is an escape from reality, and like all such escapes, it fails to deal with the situation in any way that resolves it.
I think most often, we lie to avoid telling the truth. Usually those are white lies. “That ghastly perfume sure smells pleasant on you, though.” And, “That lime-striped tie is anything but repulsive with your paisley suit coat. You should wear that outfit to funerals more often.” Other top reasons people lie:
- To avoid punishment. “I didn’t do it.”
- To get out of obligations. “I can’t make your party — I’ve made prior plans.”
- To gain something. “I’ll give you a dollar on Tuesday for a lick of your ice cream today.”
- To trap others. “You might as well confess, Jones. Six people saw you do it.”
- To persuade others to do their bidding. “And this vacuum will save you money.”
Those seem to me the top six reasons non-habitual liars lie. There might be a myriad other reasons too.
i have heard that every culture on earth prohibits some lies and allows others, but the rules vary from one culture to the next. One of the most widely accepted rules, however, is that it’s ok to lie in order to protect someone from harm. Say, an enemy asks if you’ve seen Jones. You have, but you tell him no.
Sam Harris has written a book against any and all lying. I have the book, but I have not read it yet, and I might never get around to it, so I don’t know why he’s against all lying — even white lies, I hear.
As for myself, I think lies might sometimes be necessary — to keep Jones from being discovered by his bloodthirsty enemy, for instance. I just hope I can get through life without having to tell too many of them.