Why don't people like honesty

psychology: "Liars are sympathetic"


Read on one side

ZEIT knowledge: Professor Feldman, why do we lie so much?

Robert Feldman: Because it works. Lies are the lubricant of communication. Often times, people don't want to hear the truth, they want something they feel good about.

ZEIT knowledge: So we're doing the other a favor by lying to them?

Feldman: Yes. Most people would assert that they naturally want to know the truth. But in everyday life we ​​are often happier with a lie. For example (takes hold of the pink tie) I don't even want to hear: "What a terrible tie!" - even if the other person thinks so. In one experiment, we said things about themselves to the test subjects. If it was negative, they'd rather not hear it.

ZEIT knowledge: But the truth cannot be bent at will.

Robert Feldman

is Professor of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He has been studying the psychology of lying for decades: as a young assistant professor, he looked for signs of lies in the tapes of the Watergate scandal - and found none. He caused a sensation with the research result that people who get to know each other lie on average three times in the first ten minutes.

Feldman: Not in the long run, that's true. Otherwise you will never get accurate feedback about yourself. If you really want to see where you stand, you should seek the truth. It's just that sometimes it is painful, and so we tend to avoid it.



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ZEIT knowledge: Immanuel Kant would probably not have agreed with that. His maxim was: never, never lie! Under no circumstances.

Feldman: I respect this ideal. One should be truthful about important things. But when it comes to getting along with other people in everyday life, you make life very difficult if you strictly follow this ideal. Those who always speak the truth bluntly are usually unpopular.

ZEIT knowledge: Are Good Liars More Successful in Life?

Feldman: Socially skilled people are more likely to lie. You will understand better what the social situation requires. Less popular people are not as sensitive to what their interlocutors want to hear, so they are more likely to be hurtful. Good liars are more personable.

ZEIT knowledge: Are you socially successful because you lie? Or is their ability to lie just a side effect of their social skills?

Feldman: One can probably argue for both. In any case, I would never say that one should deliberately lie in order to make oneself popular. But most socially competent people subconsciously practice lying as an effective technique. It goes into their natural repertoire. So natural that they often don't even notice that they are lying.

ZEIT knowledge: Can you unintentionally lie? Doesn't the intention necessarily belong to a lie?

Feldman: A person lies when he says something that contradicts reality as he sees it. By "lying unintentionally" I mean: If you thought about it, you would recognize it as a lie.

ZEIT knowledge: So people just don't think about it?

Feldman: That's exactly what we found out. In our experiments we bring people who do not know each other together and ask them to get to know each other. We film them. When we ask them afterwards, they almost always say with full conviction: "I didn't lie." Then when we go through the record with them, they find one falsehood after another. They see that they lied even though they weren't aware of it.

ZEIT knowledge: And then? Shame yourself?

Feldman: No. There is very little shame. Most people are just surprised. They say, "Yikes, I actually lied." But they don't get too upset about it.