According to a 2010 study, Americans lie an average of 11 times per week (Serota, Levine, & Bolster). But did you know that lying about that dessert you ate while on your diet could do more to adversely affect your health than the calories in the dessert?
This week we’ve seen two athletes exposed for lying. Lance Armstrong finally admitted to doping after winning seven consecutive Tour de France Titles. The result of those lies was having his titles revoked, a lifetime ban from cycling, and there may be more consequences to come. The deception around Manti Te’o is a little more complicated. Apparently the girlfriend he was led to believe had died from cancer turned out to be a fictitious person created in social media by a “cat fishing” hoax’ster. But, earlier this week Te’o admitted to Katie Couric that he had extended the lie, even after he realized he’d been duped.
We’ve been thinking about the ramifications of lying that go beyond getting caught and exposed as a fraud. What about the effects on your health of not telling the truth and holding on to a secret that you don’t want anyone to know?
According to researchers, the side-effects of lying include:
- Increased stress or trauma
- Increased heart rate and blood pressure
- Compromised immunity
- Lower-back pain and headaches
- Menstrual problems and infertility
- Deterioration of relationships
- The tendency to perpetuate the lies and continue to lie consistently
Most people can recall times when they held something from someone, when they told a lie, or when something just had to be kept a secret. You may remember feeling abnormally stressed, like you had to second guess yourself every time you spoke on the subject. Even more frustrating, the secrets meant to be forgotten may have had the tendency to constantly overwhelm your thoughts despite your best intentions to forget about them.
Psychology researchers at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana did a 10 week study on a group of 110 individuals, half of which were asked not to lie, and the other half simply told to keep track of how many times they lied.
The researchers tracked each participant’s mental and physical health with questionnaires, using a lie detector test to verify truthfulness. They also observed changes in the quality of each participant’s relationships.
Surprisingly, not only did both groups reduce their occurrence of lying, with the “no-lie” group showing the most drastic reduction, but each group had mental and physical health improvement of a similar degree.
It is thought that much of the health improvement was derived from the well-established improvement that telling the truth has on relationships, but lying and harboring falsehoods also increases stress. David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at the University of Texas has found that secrets lead to cognitive dissonance, a mental incongruence that requires an unhealthy amount of negative mental energy to maintain.
According to Linda Stroh, a professor emeritus of organizational behavior at Loyola University, lying sparks the release of cortisol and other stress hormones, both increasing your blood pressure and heart rate. In addition, the natural immune responses of your body can be deadened, often leading to the onset of tangible aching and discomfort.
When we lie, our secrets consume us, like any thoughts we try to suppress. Do this quick exercise: whatever you do, do not think of a white bear.
What came to your mind? If you thought of a white bear, you have had the same reaction as Daniel Wegner’s participants, in his study that exposed the cognitive mechanism behind suppressed thoughts. He found that secrets occupy your mind far more often than any other thoughts and that it can require intense effort and focus to hide them.
Secrecy creates a feedback loop in which the secret causes a preoccupation that is impossible to ignore. It is only by revealing the truth that a person can break free from this unhealthy cycle, whether the secret is a lie or not. When Holocaust victims recalled memories that they had never shared with anyone, for example, the act of talking about their experiences markedly improved their health, 14 months after they spoke about them.
Lance Armstrong maintained his position, that the allegations that he was doping were untrue, for at least 7 years, despite much attention and media scrutiny. His titles stripped away and reputation tarnished, he does have one thing to look forward to: the positive health effects of coming clean.
Serota, K. B., Levine, T. R., and Boster, F. J. (2010). The prevalence of lying in America: Three studies of reported deception. Human Communication Research, 36, 1-24.
“Science of Honesty” project 2011-2013 (Kelly, Wang, & Gondoli)
Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain
By David Eagleman
Lane, J. D., & Wegner, D. M. (1995). The cognitive consequences of secrecy. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69, 237-253.