Betty W. Phillips, Ph.D., Psychology
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Truth or Consequences




                                                TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES?


Do you remember the Truth or Consequences TV show?  Today I’m writing about real life truth or consequences issues, not the silly but popular game show of the past.  These days too many people see life as a game which you can play honestly or dishonestly.  For the “in” crowd, characteristics such as truth, honesty, integrity and virtue are ignored or even scorned as being boring or unprofitable.  How long has it been since you’ve heard that “honesty is the best policy’?  What may seem today as clever lifestyle choices made by the “smart money” crowd may ultimately be “fools gold.”


Let’s get to the heart of the matter.  Ultimately each of us must make our own life decisions.  We face “truth or consequences” decisions every day. The data is very clear:  truth-telling is one of the crucial life choices individuals can make producing health and happiness, while dishonesty will result ultimately in stress and disease.  How so, you ask?  Who will know if I lie?  You will know and your body will always know!  Recent research has been discovering these cold hard facts. Think about this:  your brain has to go through more steps to lie than to tell the truth.  First the brain recognizes the truth of the matter, then has to decide what you want or need to conceal. Then the brain has to decide to lie, what lie to tell, whether you can lie successfully, give a convincing performance, then monitor the future to determine how to keep the lie alive and credible.  To tell the truth, in most cases, that’s all you have to do.  At times you want to decide how and when to be honest, but there are fewer steps and there is less uncertainty in the process.  Even when you lie with “good” intentions such as a “little white lie”, your brain and your heart still know that something is wrong.


Recent research has studied the neurological and biological correlates of lying to find that dishonesty causes stress and ultimately disease in your body!  Decisions about honesty and dishonesty are made in the prefrontal cortex, the planning and executive center of the brain. Specifically, recent research has found that three areas of the brain light up on an MRI during deception: the anterior cingulated cortex, the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex and the parietal cortex.  Interestingly, it was found that chronic liars have more white matter connective tissue in their brain and less of the important gray matter cells which process information. Lying causes stress and anxiety as a liar is consciously or subconsciously afraid of detection. There are changes in the skin electricity, pulse and breathing rate, even the pitch of your voice from slightly tightened vocal cords. Increased nervous activation even leads to a dry mouth. Lie detector tests use these signals of increased stress to detect deception and lying.  In addition to these immediate anxiety responses, longer-term body changes can be detected in problems in mental and physical health. In a 10 week study, subjects who were instructed to tell the truth showed less trouble sleeping, less tension, fewer headaches and fewer sore throats than the group that was instructed to lie.  Over time, increased stress hormones will result in elevated blood pressure contributing to cardiovascular damage and distressed immune functions causing infectious disease, impaired memory, fertility, bone health, digestive health, diabetes, cancer as well as clinical depression and other mental health problems including shame and guilt. Behavioral changes are also seen over time. Research results show that “frequent truth telling made lying more difficult, and frequent lying made lying easier.” A recent Psychology Today article was entitled, “Want a Healthier Longer Life? Stop Lying.”


I hope this information has gotten your attention.  Think about the big and little deceptions you may be considering or expressing as you go about your daily life.  When you decide to speak your truth even in difficult situations, you will begin to feel happy and proud. Religious and spiritual practices emphasize the virtue and the rewards of honesty. Even if you are an agnostic or atheist, you will benefit from the personal rewards received by practicing integrity, holding your head high and looking out at the world with pride and satisfaction.  What about strategic lies or falsehoods designed to try to avoid hurt and pain in others? They will eventually boomerang. “White” lies are falsehoods. You can address the truth kindly or avoid the issue.  Practice speaking honestly and with compassion, choosing your words to convey a positive intent even when the truth may contain some difficult or painful parts.  In some situations you may even be able to sidestep addressing painful issues at all.


Let’s also think a little bit about our society and why lying and deception seem more and more commonplace, even endemic these days.  We are taught to admire our national leaders, and names such as Washington and Lincoln make us proud that we are Americans. But what about our current national leaders? Do our politicians tell the truth! Recent jokes ring true. “You can tell when a politician is lying… His lips are moving!”  “The only time politicians tell the truth is when they call each other liars.”  Who else do we hear from other than our politicians? The media.  How many of you feel that news commentators and advertisers tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?  You’re probably thinking something like, “only fools.”  It seems that financial gain is the standard these days, not honesty or virtue. Think about the common statement: “Money talks!” You have a big problem if you believe in modern advertising. Truth is so distorted these days that it takes a great deal of research to actually discover the facts about the products we’re asked to purchase.  Stephen Leacock defines advertising as “the science of arresting the human intelligence long enough to get money from it.” Mad Magazine writes that “the only reason a great many American families don’t own an elephant is that they have never been offered an elephant for a dollar down and easy weekly payments.”  Levity aside, there is a great need for factual information about our lives, information which is unfortunately hard or impossible to obtain through the mass media. Factual information must be provided by do-gooders and non-profits such as the Environmental Working Group which researches an increasing number of areas: toxins in the environment, consumer goods, energy, farm, food and water.


Let’s think about the difference in these words. Truth-telling: honesty, virtue, trustworthy, ethical, righteous, honorable, moral, genuine and straightforward.  From the Bible: “The truth will set you free.”  Lying: deceptive, false, fraudulent, cheating, corrupt, trickery, underhanded, unscrupulous, not trustworthy. From Plato: false words “infect the soul with evil.”


Your choice is clear: deception and stress or truth and heart-felt happiness.