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Humans seem to be by nature deceitful creatures. We all lie and deceive on a daily basis. "Lovely to see you again"; "I'm not busy"; "I don't mind"; "we will keep a copy of your CV on file"; "I love your new haircut". Lying is something that comes all too easily to most of us. We tell white lies (and sometimes worse) casually and often think of such things as just a necessary lubricant to smooth social intercourse, something to make our complicated lives a little easier. Telling the truth can get us into trouble - indeed, truth is trouble. Although we are told repeatedly when we are children that honesty is the best policy and our childhood stories are full of morals of why those who are dishonest never prosper, this certainty seems to fade into adulthood - perhaps because by then we have learnt by then how to lie and get away with it.
"Why We Lie: The Source of Our Disasters" is a book, unsurprisingly, about lying. Psychologist Dorothy Rowe takes us through various aspects of lying, from how we can know what is true, to how children learn to lie, when lying might be necessary, types of lies, the effects of being lied to and the hard truths of deceitful behaviour. Drawing on examples as diverse as Nazi Germany, the War on Terror, political lies of varying magnitudes, the recent financial crisis, and examples from her own life, Rowe draws together her argument for lying being a mechanism to protect our sense of self - something so precious that we lie even to ourselves - and the damage we can cause in the process. "Every lie we tell, no matter how small and unimportant, is a defence of our sense of being a person," she argues.
Yet lies told can hurt feelings, cost relationships and jobs, and even the in case of the US and UK going to war in Iraq, cost many, many lives.
Although interesting and thoughtful, what came across most from reading this book was anger and more than a little scorn. Rowe had a miserable childhood dominated by an overbearing, emotionally manipulative and often cruel mother, who used to tell Rowe that she was lying whenever she said something that didn't fit in with her mother's view of the world. From this likely stems not only her interest in lying but also her anger - at the mother who treated her so shabbily; at the father, sister and teachers who did nothing to protect her (as they were lying to themselves about what was really going on); at her unfaithful husband for deceiving her, and at her academic competitors for not understanding human communication in the way she does. From this, she is scornful of a good many people from Richard Dawkins (his famous meme theory is dismissed as "what rubbish") to Ol' Blue Eyes himself. "Perhaps the most popular song sung at funerals is Frank Sinatra's My Way. As if doing something your way exonerates you from the necessity of feeling remorse for your mistakes", she tuts.
Dorothy Rowe is a well-known and respected psychologist of over forty years standing. She rose to prominence with her pioneering theories about depression - that it was a sign of mental distress and difficulty to adapting to circumstances rather than a chemical imbalance in the brain, the prevailing theory of the time - and has published prolifically ever since, most lately becoming a columnist in the Guardian. So well known have her books become that you begin to suspect that just having her name on the front cover guarantees you a title that will sell well. It also perhaps means that such a book is not subject to the same level of editorial scrutiny that other non-fiction works may attract. Certainly I found the chapters that seemed, in the contents page, to organise the text into logical themes to be fairly irrelevant when reading the text, as the thread of the argument had a tendency to ramble and meander away from the point in hand. At various points the author seemed to even interrupt herself, moving on to a new subject before you felt the previous one had come to a close. This sensation could have been measurably improved with the use of sub-headings to break up and order the text - used in a couple of chapters but curiously absent from the rest - and would have greatly helped the reader.
For readers with an interest in human behaviour, this is a book worth trying, and many will enjoy the bluntness of the author's criticisms and her sharp observations greatly. There were many intriguing sections in the book, but as a whole it was unfortunately not one I found greatly readable; this was more of a polemic than a psychological enquiry, and I felt slightly disappointed that the book did not manage to live up to the potential it showed in several places.
Not greatly recommended.
=== Details ===
Why We Lie by Dorothy Rowe
Fourth Estate (2011)
=== With thanks to the publishers for providing me with a review copy of Why We Lie ===