How lying affects our physical and mental health

How much can a lie really hurt you? Researchers say, a lot, and a study by psychologist and professor at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, Kelly Stroh, suggests that honesty may truly be the best way forward for both your health and well-being.

Most people on average tell about eleven lies per week or one or two per day.

And all that lying could in fact lead to sore throats, headaches, feelings of sadness, and heavy stress.

Professor Kelly spent 10 weeks measuring the health of 110 adults. She asked half of them to stop themselves from lying during the study period. This meant no false statements, even though participants were still allowed to omit the truth, no secrets, and no dodging of questions they did not want to answer.

The other half were not given instructions about lying, although they knew they had to report the number of lies they told during the week.

Participants had to take a weekly lie-detector test as well as filling out questionnaires regarding their mental and physical health, and the quality of their relationships.

The results showed that both groups lied less, however, those who were told to tell the truth reaped additional health improvements.

“We established very clearly that purposefully trying not to lie caused people to tell fewer lies,” Kelly said. “When they told more lies, their health went down. And when they told the truth, it improved.”

The study showed that telling fewer small lies in a week translated to four fewer mental health complaints and three fewer physical health complaints. Kelly thinks that might be because telling the truth improves our relationships, as the participants of the study reported. And previous research has long indicated that people with strong relationships have better mental and physical health.

However, an additional factor could be in play here, experts argue.

Research on the exact health effects of lying remains scant, but lying is thought to push the release of stress hormones, increasing blood pressure and heart rate.

Stress limits the number of infection-fighting white blood cells in your body, and over a period of yeats, could even be a contributing factor to lower-back pain, headaches, menstrual problems, a rapid heartbeat, as well as infertility. You have likely experienced the negative effects of lying at least once in your life. Try to imagine, for instance, that you are planning to lie to your partner or your employer tomorrow morning.

“I would bet that you can feel the tension in your shoulders, in your stomach, and in other parts of your body,” says Linda Stroh, a professor of organizational behavior at Loyola University in Chicago and author of Trust Rules: How to Tell the Good Guys From the Bad Guys. “You would spend a lot of time planning the lie, executing it, and maintaining it.”

And that can be terribly costly.

“It takes a lot of negative physical and mental energy to maintain a lie,” Stroh said. “We have to think before we answer and we have to plan what we say and do, rather than saying and doing what comes more naturally. We waste a lot of precious time covering our tracks rather than spending that time in positive ways, doing good things.”

But is giving up on lies a realistic prospect? Not really, and it is certainly not easy, says Kelly.

Most of the participants were able to cut it down to one lie a week. The especially hard part is removing those seemingly unimportant little white lies out of our daily lives.

As the 10-week study came to a conclusion, Kelly asked participants to share how they had managed to curb their dishonesty.

“We didn’t find that anyone was using the study to give people a piece of their mind or tell them brutal truths,” she said. “They just stopped exaggerating their day-to-day accomplishments, dropped excuses that weren’t true, and told partial truths instead.” For example: If a participant’s girlfriend changed her hairstyle and he didn’t like it, he couldn’t lie and say that he did. But he could vaguely tell her: “I really like the way your face looks right now.”

If you’re making an honest effort to cut down on the lies, Stroh suggests surrounding yourself with like-minded, honest people.

“Surround yourself with people who encourage you to be a truthful person, as opposed to those who might tell you it’s OK to be untruthful,” Stroh added. “Be aware that those who lie ‘with you’ may lie ‘to you’ as well.”

We hope that this study was helpful to you.  If you enjoyed this article, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment and share it with your friends and family. 

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