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Is a lie worth the price?

Monday December 17 2018

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I recently watched a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) documentary on honesty and in the end, I was startled by its conclusion: We cannot live without lies.

An experiment on honesty was conducted on a priest, a college student and a media consultant. The participants were strapped with multiple lie detector gadgets and set free to their normal lives. The gadgets monitor signs of a lying person that include pulse, blood pressure, respiration and skin conductivity.

After a couple of days, the researchers noted that everybody lied in one way or another. When asked, almost all of the participants agreed that they lie sometimes to protect the feelings of their loved ones. Further, they employ different tactics such as avoiding the question that could precipitate a compulsion to lie.

I thought I would prove these findings wrong by trying to be brutally honest for at least one week. It didn’t work and my advice – don’t try it at home. I earned four days of nil by mouth from my closest family member.
I also temporarily lost four of my friends who thought I was being condescending. I constantly began to notice that what I thought, did, said and felt (properties of honesty) always came up against my desire to be honest.

It is worse when you are conscious about all these properties. Often, we easily fall into the trap of dishonesty when those around us dictate our feelings.

Similar experiments have been conducted, but Dan Ariely and Yael Melamede conducted, in 2016, one that demonstrates my key point, under the title ''A fascinating experiment into measuring dishonesty''.

In their experiment, they administered simple math problems and gave a reward for every correct response. Participants were to mark their own paper and then shred it. The shredder was fake, so that it was possible to verify every paper against what respondents had reported to have scored.

On average, participants solved four problems but reported solving six. Seventy percent cheated. Of the 40,000 participants, 20 lied outright that they scored everything correct. The 20 outright cheaters cost the experiment sh40,000 in the form of rewards. Some 28,000, or 70 percent, who lied a little bit, cost the experiment sh5,000,000.


Generally, big cheaters tend to be very few but small cheaters are many and cost organisations millions, since they fall within the acceptable limit of cheating. If small bribes in Kenya were to be aggregated, they would most likely be 10 times higher than grand thefts. That is why we often perceive the economic impact of small cheaters as insignificant when compared to big cheaters. But in real terms, it is more significant.

In theory, this also applies to our daily activities where we accept small but frequent cheating without knowing that in the long run it is costlier than when we cheat big but only occasionally.

There is a Swahili saying that goes: ''Kidogo kidogo hujaza kibaba'' (little by little eventually fills the measure). The small doses of lies we receive early in life is what becomes destructive later in life when the jar of lies fills up.


As young kids, it was common practice for parents to lie on matters sexual. The African culture treats sex education as a taboo. Many of my generation were told that children were not born of a woman but delivered at night by angels. This theory contradicted what we came to learn in biology but not before the unwanted pregnancies become an epidemic.

Even in modern times, we have left sex education out of any conversation in school and at home. HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections are often higher in areas where sex education is a taboo.

The greater consequences of these doses of lies does not just affect lifestyle but are manifest in the greed with which we devour our public resources.

Dan Ariely, in his book, The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty, argues that we all lie but we consider ourselves honest. He offers evidence that we're able to believe we're honest even though we lie or cheat by doing so only in little ways.
We are therefore able to tell ourselves we are mostly honest—that is, we're only dishonest in ways that we think don't matter.

As a result, very few of us suffer any form of guilt over our lack of integrity.

Mark Twain said, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” In other words, the greatest liar has his believers and by entertaining a dint of lies, we have no clue where the limits lie.

Perhaps this is why fake news dominates our media today and, sadly, they have their believers.

In my view, it is either we are honest or not. Nothing in between no matter how much it hurts.

The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi’s School of Business. Twitter: @bantigito