Is It Ever OK To Lie?

1999/6/21: Polygraph drawing lines on graph paper, partial graphic
AP Photo
Call them fibs, falsehoods, fish stories, tall tales, terminological inexactitude or whoppers, but what's really true is that lying has become as commonplace as paper money, and almost as necessary.

University of California, Santa Barbara professor Bella DePaulo has spent two decades looking at how and why people lie. She found that of the 77 undergraduates she interviewed for one study, only one claimed to not have lied all week. Of the 70 people from the community, she said six said they hadn't lied all week.

"In my studies people tell an average of two lies a day and that's the ones they'll admit to telling, so I think lying is an everyday behavior that probably everyone engages in," she told Sunday Morning correspondent Tracy Smith. "I don't think it would be possible to have a life full of people who care about you if you didn't lie to them."

In fact, deceit has become so pervasive, it's sometimes hard to know who's lying to your face. That's where polygraph expert Jack Trimarco comes in. A good examiner doesn't even need the machine — a liar's voice alone could give him away.

"They're not proud about the fact that they're getting ready to tell a big ol' whopper. And so, they lower their voice. So many times I'd been across from a suspected bank robber. And I'll say, 'Bobby, if no one has asked you to this point, let me be the first: Did you rob the Bank of America?' And Bobby'll say 'No,' which is not his normal volume of response. Or he may say, 'No' (while nodding)."

But it's a lot harder to detect a lie when it happens on TV. In 1957, gamne show champion Charles Van Doren was a national hero until it came out that he got the adswers in advance ... a fall from grace immortalized in the 1994 movie "Quiz Show." It was the biggest TV scandal of the day, and it wouldn't be the last.

In 1998, Riley Weston was a writer/actress on the hit show "Felicity." At only 19, she was considered a prodigy and even made Entertainment Weekly's list of the 100 Most Creative People. She was creative, all right — she just wasn't 19, but in her early 30s.

She looked the part of a teenager but Weston says producers wouldn't consider her for younger roles because she was over 30, so she decided to stretch the truth.

"What is your perception of me walking in the door?" Weston said. "Am I talented? Do I look the part? No other questions should be asked."

So she lied through her teeth — and it worked. Besides her work on "Felicity," she was offered a writing deal with Disney, but just as her career was really taking off, the truth about her age came out.

"I was confronted by agents and managers that said, 'Hey, there's no way this could be true, right?' And I'm [going] 'Should probably talk to my lawyer, and yes it is,'" she said.

Weston feared that all her dreams would evaporate in a day, and for a while they were gone. The Disney deal went away and acting jobs have been few and far between. Her writing career survived: she's just published an award-winning novel, "Before I Go," a fictional story about a mother-daughter relationship, and says she has few regrets.

"I would tell any actor coming out here, if they're in their 20s, they need to lie about their age through their teeth," she said. "Because if they look young, and they look young like I do, they need to lie to get in the door. That's the chance they're gonna have to take. But do you want to work? If you want to work, and you're 25, or you're 24, and you look like you're 15, you're gonna have to lie through your teeth to get in that door."

So, will the next generation learn to value honesty? Sure, but they probably won't get it from watching TV. In order to help foster integrity, Michael Josephson formed the nonprofit Character Counts, dedicated to teaching kids about honesty.

"Look at the reality shows," he said. "Look at all the shows on TV, where the underlying principle is 'last person standing.' And the only way you can be the last person standing is if, in one way or another, you beat the other person. You can never win as a team. Only one of you is gonna win. And in most of these shows, you start out with alliances, and then you end up having to shaft your partners, right? That kind of betrayal has become so much part of the American culture."

Character Counts runs programs in schools like Price Elementary in Downey, Calif. It seems to be working.

"Lying will not get you anywhere in life," student Monica Calvert said.

"You can't doubt that we've reached some of those children in a meaningful and lasting way," Josephson said. "And they will help reach other children. And you know what? Ethics is like a virus. A positive virus. And it will spread. And we're gonna change pieces of the world, piece by piece."