Dissecting a Quote: Big Lies vs Small Lies


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“It is easier to macrobullshit than to microbullshit” – Nassim Taleb

If you want to deceive others, make sure you go big. A single big lie can take you very far. And people are more likely to believe you, because ‘he wouldn’t blatantly lie about something that big?’

The problem with small lies (‘white lies’) is that they grow in complexity, and they require more and more additional lies to cover up the previous lies, and at some point others will invariably start noticing the inconsistencies, that things simply don’t add up. It becomes impossible to cover all the angles, and to cover your tracks. It snowballs, and those who are perceptive enough are bound to notice.

It is much easier to get away with the odd lie about something big and possibly vague than it is to get away with multiple small lies. This is why we are more likely to believe analysts when they make big predictions about GDP growth, or whether markets will go up or down, than we are to believe those same analysts when they make smaller (micro) predictions about whether a specific stock will go up or down in the short term. This is not to say that these analysts are lying, it is just easier to identify that they are wrong when they are wrong about little, specific things.

And you can lie to some of the people some of the time, but you can’t lie to everyone all of the time. For example, often when someone is having an extramarital affair, they can often hide it from their spouse for a very long time, but they can’t hide it from their children.

The problem with continuous lying is that it becomes pathological. The more you lie, the more you structure your brain in such a way that you find it easier and easier to lie, and you lie more often. Not only does this erode the trust others have in you, but you end up starting to lie to yourself more and more, to the point where you normalise it, and you can no longer rely on your perception of reality. You will become dysfunctional. For every lie you tell yourself you are effectively digging a deeper and deeper hole from which it becomes more and more difficult to escape. There is now scientific evidence to prove it. A recent study at University College London found that self-serving dishonesty leads to a slippery slope of more and more dishonesty, with the amygdala (a part of the brain) becoming desensitised to lying, with lies escalating. Truth needs to be your highest value, if you want to be able to trust yourself and your own judgement.

Truth vs Honesty

There is a difference between truth and honesty. Truth is objective and based on fact. There is only one truth relating to any single event. Honesty is subjective, and always comes from a person. A person who is being honest may still be factually incorrect, but they are not lying because they sincerely believe what they are saying, and they are not trying to mislead or deceive.

So what it comes down to is this: Don’t lie. Nothing good will come of it.


Post Script: In this article I am only sharing what I believe to be the consequences of lying. I have left out any moral or religious considerations about lying. I did this to show that there is a pragmatic argument to be made for not lying, as there is certainly also a moral or religious argument to be made for not lying.