Truth, Lies and Unicorns

Following is a synopsis of an article—"Truth, Lies and Unicorns"—that I just published with Andrea Howe of BossaNova Consulting Group in You can read the complete article here.

What is lying?

On a conversational level, we take “lying” to mean speaking an untruth; overtly saying something that is not the case. Webster’s first definition is “to make an untrue statement with intent to deceive.” “To lie” is an active verb, with a connotation of intent.

But Webster’s second definition is far broader: “to create a false or misleading impression.” That definition includes lies of omission; it even extends beyond speech.

By that definition, business advisors (or for that matter, people) who don’t lie are like unicorns: not inconceivable, but pretty infrequent. In the same sense, Diogenes never found an honest man.

The article goes on to describe five common ways we lie to clients. It then explores just why it is that we lie. Our contention is that we fool ourselves.

The article examines the costs and benefits of lying, separating the purely utilitarian consequences from any ethical treatment. The article argues that when humans analyze lying as a purely utilitarian practice—we tend to get the analysis wrong.

Specifically, we underestimate the utilitarian value of truth-telling, and of the cost of disapproval if caught.

Meanwhile, we overestimate the benefit of the false perception our lie gets us, the cost of disapproval for truth-telling, and the probability of getting away with it.

On purely arithmetic grounds, then, lying is often accompanied by self-deception. It’s speculation on my part, but I suppose it has to do with over-estimating present pain vs. future good—a saber-tooth tiger in one’s face gets a lot of attention. It’s all fear-based in any case.

The article goes on to discuss the very real economic costs of lying, and to suggest some practical ways of doing a better job of truth-telling.

If the article interests you, you might also want to read Sissela Bok’s excellent book Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life. She makes a wonderful case that, while “always tell the whole truth” may be an overly strict rule, it is far closer to correct than what we usually do.

Finally, as long as I’m self-promoting in this post, let me dump it all at once. I got a very nice book review of my book "Trust-based Selling" from Mike Schultz. Full disclosure: Mike is also publisher of, of which I’m a contributing editor. Mike was taken by the use of lists in the book.

There, all done.