Being Honest Can Improve Your Health

Being Honest Can Improve Your Health


The average person lies about 11 times a day, and will slip in at least two dishonesties in a 10-minute conversation, according to lying expert Robert Feldman.1

New research suggests that this widespread insincerity is taking a toll on more than just your good reputation and, in fact, may play a significant role in your health. What’s more, you may be able to lower your risk of sore throats, colds, and headaches just by learning to tell the truth.

The Power of Sincerity for Your Health

Part of Sigmund Freud’s 1904 Fundamental Rule of Psychoanalysis was that complete honesty was required from patients for their cure.2 He may have been on to something, as evidenced by research presented at the 2014 national convention of the American Psychological Association.

The study, which was carried out by two University of Notre Dame professionals as part of their “Science of Honesty” project, followed 72 adults for five weeks. The participants were broken into two groups, a control group and a sincerity group that was told to speak only the truth. Members of the sincerity group were told:3

“Throughout every day of the next 5 weeks, you must speak honestly, truthfully, and sincerely—not only about the big things, but also about the small things, such as why you were late.

You must always mean what you say in situations where your statements are to be taken seriously, as opposed to when joking or obviously exaggerating. While you certainly can choose not to answer questions, you must always mean what you say.”

By the end of the study, significant health differences were reported among the two groups. Those in the sincerity group had an average of seven fewer symptoms, such as sore throats, headaches, nausea, and mental tension, than the control group.

One of the study’s authors, psychology professor Anita Kelly, Ph.D, has been following the instructions too, and said that while she normally gets five to seven colds a winter, she had so far had none, despite the fact that she’d also been getting less sleep. As Forbes put it:4

“Perhaps all of that lying causes a continual level of psychosomatic stress that handicaps our immune system.”

Why Do People Lie So Much?

Honesty is often reported as one of the most desirable traits in a person. Yet, most people lie on a daily basis, from small “white” lies to more serious offenses. As for why people lie, it depends. Research by Feldman found that people lie almost as a matter of reflex and most may not even realize they’ve done it.

In one study, all the participants said they had been truthful in their recorded conversations, but when the video was played back, 60 percent of the participants had not been truthful (and were reportedly “genuinely surprised” that they had said something inaccurate).5

Feldman found that men tend to lie to make themselves look better while women tend to lie to boost another person’s feelings. And extroverts, in general, tend to lie more frequently than introverts.

Separate research from the University of Alberta revealed that people have an easier time lying to their co-workers than to strangers, especially when it comes to protecting their self-worth or self-esteem. Jennifer Argo of the University of Alberta explained:6

“…people appear to be short-term focused when they decide to deceive someone—save my self-image and self-worth now, but later on if the deceived individual finds out it can have long-term consequences.”

Five ‘Versions of the Truth’ That are Really Lies

It makes sense that lying would negatively impact your health and emotional well-being, as negative thoughts of all kinds have been shown to do just that. In the case of lying, however, many people do it without even thinking about it, which means, in order to protect your health, you’ve first got to identify what constitutes a lie. Here are five examples that might surprise you, as reported by Psychology Today.7

Controlling a Response: Let’s say you’re telling a friend about an argument you had with your spouse. If you shade the truth by only telling your side of the story, or altering the way in which you actually behaved to reflect more favorably on yourself, it’s lying. You are, in fact, altering or controlling your friend’s response, perhaps to get them to say what you want to hear.
Lying by Omission: Intentionally leaving out significant or relevant details is a form of lying and will not promote mutual trust or honest communication.
Exaggerations: Embellishing on your resume, exaggerating your skills, or inflating events when you tell a story are all examples of lies that will eventually deem you untrustworthy.
Self-Protection: This is a form of lying in which you put a guard up so as to feel less vulnerable and avoid getting hurt. It often involves downplaying your emotions or pretending you’re not interested or involved in order to protect yourself.
Gossip or Covert Communication: If you talk about someone behind their back, it will usually involve lying at some point (often by denying the gossip to the person being gossiped about). It’s better to only engage in open, honest communications that you don’t feel you have to cover up after the fact.

If Your Doctor Lies It Can Impact Your Health, Too

While telling lies may negatively impact your health, so too can being lied to – especially when you’re lied to by your physician. The Charter on Medical Professionalism, which is endorsed by more than 100 professional groups worldwide, “requires openness and honesty in physicians’ communication with patients.”

Yet, when a study in Health Affairs presented data from a survey of nearly 1,900 physicians to see how well they follow this principle… the results were less than impressive, to put it mildly:8

One-third of physicians did not completely agree with disclosing serious medical errors to patients
One-fifth did not completely agree that physicians should never tell a patient something untrue
Forty percent believed that they should hide their financial relationships with drug and device companies to patients
Ten percent said they had told patients something untrue in the previous year
While most of the physicians surveyed did agree that they should “fully inform patients about the risks and benefits of interventions” as well as “never disclose confidential information to unauthorized persons,” in their entirety the findings cast serious doubt about the trustworthiness of the doctor-patient relationship. As the researchers stated:

“Our findings raise concerns that some patients might not receive complete and accurate information from their physicians, and doubts about whether patient-centered care is broadly possible without more widespread physician endorsement of the core communication principles of openness and honesty with patients.”

Research suggests that 10 percent of doctors lie to their patients, sometimes exaggerating health results (or sugarcoating prognoses), or keeping slightly abnormal results from their patients. Still, even if well intentioned, health care is not an area where people want fibs and half-truths. In fact, most people would rather hear the truth in just about any situation… Not to mention, being fully informed is an essential part of taking control of your health… TIME reported:9

“…as well-intentioned as their fibs may be, other studies consistently show that patients prefer the truth, and would rather hear harsh news than remain ignorant about a dire medical condition. Being fully informed is a way that patients can cope and prepare for whatever might occur.”

Even Small Incentives May Trigger Dishonesty

You might be surprised, but there is compelling research that supports that about 98% of us lie because we can rationalize it as insignificant. In a test of college students who were entrusted to record their own test scores, researchers found the students were more likely to lie about their scores if the money reward was only 50 cents, as opposed to $10. This is likely because while people want to maximize their own reward, they also want to feel like they are good people. Lying and reaping just another 50 cents or 1 dollar seems like just a small “white lie,” whereas doing it for a bigger sum, like $10 or more, seems more dishonest. Study author Dan Ariely wrote:

“We tend to think that people are either honest or dishonest… But that is not how dishonesty works. Over the past decade or so, my colleagues and I have taken a close look at why people cheat, using a variety of experiments and looking at a panoply of unique data sets—from insurance claims to employment histories to the treatment records of doctors and dentists.

What we have found, in a nutshell: Everybody has the capacity to be dishonest, and almost everybody cheats—just by a little. Except for a few outliers at the top and bottom, the behavior of almost everyone is driven by two opposing motivations. On the one hand, we want to benefit from cheating and get as much money and glory as possible; on the other hand, we want to view ourselves as honest, honorable people. Sadly, it is this kind of small-scale mass cheating, not the high-profile cases, that is most corrosive to society.”

Protect Your Health by Being Honest

Honesty really is the best policy, and you can take the five-week sincerity challenge to see if it makes a difference in your health and well-being. If you find lying has become a habit, you can break it by prominently displaying your new moral code: honesty is the best policy. In the study of college students mentioned above, the perception of a moral code is what stopped people from cheating. When researchers reminded students of moral codes in connection with the tests, for instance reminding students of the schools’ moral code prior to testing, no cheating occurred.

The same thing happened when participants were asked to swear on a Bible — no cheating occurred (even among self-declared atheists in the group). Anita Kelly, whose study revealed being sincere has real health advantages, recommends going easy on yourself at first. You’re bound to have slip-ups, but when that happens simply correct what you’ve said. As she said, “being sincere is a process and you will get there with practice.” When you do, you’re likely to experience profound benefits. She continued:10

“Being sincere brings you closer to the decent people you know, pushes away the naysayers, and allows you to feel a certain hopefulness about the world. To the extent that you experience these, I believe you too will have profound health benefits.”


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