Review of Why We Lie: Evening Standard (May 10)

Saturday, 02 April 2011 16:06

New truths about why we lie
by Melanie McDonagh, published in the London Evening Standard 19th May 2010

As the new Government discovers its predeccessors were less than honest about the country's finances, new research shows that children as young as two know how to lie. So psychologist Dorothy Rowe couldn't have chosen a more apt time to write a book, Why We Lie, examining why even the most truthful among us tell fibs.

Lying is a subject in which we all have a stake, which is why Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Augustine, Aquinas, Bacon and more moral philosophers than you would care to mention have given serious thought to it, not to mention Oscar Wilde. 

So what does Dorothy Rowe have to bring to the party? Well, at 80, this frank Australian brings a wealth of clinical experience as a psychologist for more than 50 years, a prolific author and an authority on depression.

And if her reputation is to be believed she is certainly worth listening to. Fay Weldon describes her as a "seer ... with qualities that place her between sainthood and genius". Nigella Lawson declares that "she is a giver of courage". 

Rowe doesn't define lying in the book. She is concerned with the motivations behind telling untruths.

She declares: "I am concerned with why we lie, and the consequences of our lies. We are very foolish indeed if we lie and fail to think about what the consequences will be."

Logically, it might seem impossible to approach the subject of lies without discussing truths which complicates matters because, according to Rowe, truth is something we construct for ourselves. You tell lies because you want to conform reality to the way you regard yourself and the world.

So, if you tell a white lie to avoid hurting someone's feelings, Rowe says, you're probably shoring up your own gratifying view of yourself as a kind person. You want people to like you so you don't tell them what they don't want to hear. To which Rowe would ask: "Why is it important to you to be liked by other people?" Her answer is that lots of people don't want to upset feelings because "any disturbance can threaten chaos, and chaos is what they fear".

Indeed, her answer to her own question, Why We Lie, is that "every lie we tell, no matter how small and unimportant, is a defence of our sense of being a person". Possibly. But this still leaves the question of whether it's a good thing to spare people's feelings by softening the truth.

What about the doctor who lies to a patient for the patient's own good, which Plato thought was allowable? The Victorians used to agonise endlessly about whether it was right to tell lies or suppress the truth to preserve life; they took the question of truth and untruth far more seriously than we do.

Truth, Rowe says, is subjective, which is itself a subjective view. The older generation of men, she says, "still fear women because the threat is that women always see things differently from men. This is not to say that a woman's point of view is closer to the truth but simply that a woman's point of view is always different from a man's."

Coming from a male psychologist this would be hair-raising sexism; what do we call it coming from liberal Dorothy Rowe? I can think, off the top of my head, of about 100 issues, matters of fact and opinion, on which I would take the contrary view to many women and side instead with men on the other side.

By the end of the book, we are left to reflect that "a truth we all seem to agree on is that we exist and so does our planet...

"If this is perhaps the only truth on which we can agree, then would it not be sensible if we looked after one another and the Earth which is our home?"

Well, you can't argue with that.

Why We Lie by Dorothy Rowe is published by Fourth estate on May 27.


"I lied about my age on my CV and to my future husband, saying I was born in 1963 when I was five years older. I wanted my husband to desire me rather than think me an old hag. I wanted to beat younger rivals to the job as a magazine editor. I realised that to lie was stupid and exhausting (I had to hide my passport on holiday), and that if people don't want me for who I am, tough."
Liz Jones, author of The Exmoor Files: How I Lost A Husband And Found Rural Bliss, out now.

"As a DJ, the biggest lie I've told is I love your tune as I'm sent music constantly. I wouldn't want to upset anyone knowing they've put their heart into a track."
Judge Jules, playing at SW4 Festival at Clapham Common on August 28.

"Aged 12, I stole my mum's fake tan and applied it liberally. It turned out well except for an orange smear on my arm, which I covered with a plaster, claiming I'd cut myself. Later, realising there'd be nothing under the plaster when it came off, I made a nick with the bread knife. Days later I was rushed to hospital with blood poisoning and nearly died."
Elizabeth Hurley, Elizabeth Hurley's Guilt Free Snacks available from Selfridges.