In a sense, the very fact that the National Archives houses both the Nixon tapes and our most esteemed texts is paradigmatic. For in our society, the juxtaposition of venerated truth and notorious deceit is not just a matter of storage; it is a contradiction that plays out in our lives every day. While we talk a great deal about respecting the truth, while most of us regard the truth with genuine respect, the fact is that lies are common in American life, and in Western society in general. I went to the National Archives because I thought lies were hard to find. In fact, lying was then and is now nearly ubiquitous. If I wanted to listen to people lying, I could have listened in on practically any conversation between any two people.
Let me put it another way: there is no question mark at the end of this book's title. There is a liar in your life. In fact, there are a lot of them. We encounter lies not only from the claims of presidents ("I am not a crook" or, more recently, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman") or sleazy sales associates at the local car dealership ("This SUV gets terrific mileage!"); we also hear lies from the people we meet and interact with on a daily basis, including our family, friends, colleagues, and the strangers we encounter in the ordinary course of each day. Dishonesty is deeply ingrained in our everyday interactions and in our broader culture. As we will see, it colors our perceptions of who other people are and our perceptions of their behavior. It even affects how we perceive our own behavior.
The issue we need to confront is not whether people lie to us—they do—but how much and why. Just as importantly, we need to consider why we're so prone to believing and even embracing the deception we hear from others, as well as the lies we tell ourselves. We need to explore why we view certain lies as harmless, while rejecting others as manipulative and shameful. And we need to consider how lies play out in broader societal contexts such as the business world, the media, and the new realm of digital communication. The primary purpose of The Liar in Your Life is to describe and explain the prevalence and consequences of lying in contemporary life, as well as to discuss the ways in which these lies affect us.
In this book, I've focused on lying not in terms of its philosophical or moral dimensions but rather as an objective scientist describing what science tells us. Understanding lying is more a matter of discussing how it occurs, not whether it ought to occur. Hence, the emphasis is on clear explanation as opposed to principled judgment. Yet it does not take an ethicist or a clergy member to recognize that lying exacts a toll—on us as individuals, on our families and communities, and on society at large. Further, from whatever perspective one approaches deception, it is hard not to feel surprised, or even alarmed, at the discovery of just how much lying goes on in our lives. I think it's safe to say that we all share the goal of building a more honest society. The surest way to do this is to come to grips with—and confront—the lies each of us face as individuals.
I hope The Liar in Your Life can be the first step in this process.