Lying. By Sam Harris. Kindle. $2.99
Reviewed by Maia Szalavitz
I won’t lie: I didn’t much like Sam Harris’ ebook Lying, and had I paid money for it rather than received it as a free download, I might have felt cheated. While I’ve enjoyed some of his earlier work, this book felt flimsy and overly simplistic.
Harris offered the free download when Jonah Lehrer’s deceptions were just beginning to be seen as part of a larger pattern: many of my colleagues felt that this was a cheap shot and an obnoxious type of self-promotion, but I wasn’t offended and thought it might offer insight into Lehrer’s deceit.
I was wrong: what we have here is a book that tries to make the case that lying is virtually always wrong, with little more nuance than a “Just Say No” campaign. The few scraps of science that are included— for example, a studies showing that one tenth of the information shared by husbands and wives involves deceit, and a full 38% of conversations among college students include at least one lie— are fascinating.
But they go nowhere. Given the high level of deception found, it seems clear that lying is common human behavior and often serves some useful purpose, a discussion of which could have been informative. Instead, we get lectures on why we should always share difficult truths. We’re even given the classic example of learning of an affair of which one partner is unaware, with nary a thought to the possibility that the couple could have an open marriage or a mutually agreed “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
Moreover, Harris actually wants us to tell people that they do “look fat in that,” in order to spur better wardrobe choices and/or weight loss and to avoid “robbing” our friends or partners of a chance to change for the better. (No mention is made of the possibility that such truth telling can be a form of hostility).
There’s no discussion of the developmental significance of lying in a child’s understanding of the minds of others, no look at the evolutionary aspects of deception, no exploration of why social lies are so common— nothing here but moralizing with little subtlety, let alone material that could guide understanding of the sad situation that undid a promising journalist. Honest!
Maia Szalavitz is a neuroscience journalist for TIME.com and the author of five books, most recently Born for Love: Why Empathy is Essential—and Endangered, with Bruce Perry, M.D. Ph.D.