Working to develop a culture within my world where good liars are prized. We do know, from science that the ability to lie is actually a marker in cognitive development, because the creature or person must be able to imagine what another person thinks.

In my world's culture, calling someone an honest man pretty much means that they aren't all that bright, because they aren't clever enough to lie.

Lies are polite.

In cultures where we roundly condemn lying, we actually lie a lot and then lie about the fact that we lie.

In this culture, they acknowledge that lies are social grease--they expect people to exaggerate things and make themselves look better. They expect merchants to lie to them, and they expect to have to call them on it (if it effects the price). This is not to say that they are dishonest about everything, but they treat lying as a skill--not something you should always do, if truth would better serve, but something that you should teach your children to do well, so they can get on in the world.

My question is this: how might this culture be viewed by cultures that are less honest about lying or that have a view about lying that's more negative? I know there are some real world examples of this (mainly that some what some cultures call politeness, others deem as dishonesty) and would appreciate those specific examples to color this more realistically based on human behavior.

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    $\begingroup$ You need to watch this video. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 29, 2016 at 17:02
  • $\begingroup$ How are lies valued? Are they valued for their subtlety or their boldness? If it's subtlety, I have some interesting philosophy of science arguments to put forth, but they're typically all well meaning lies, not bold lies. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Jan 5, 2017 at 5:35
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    $\begingroup$ Author Terry Pratchett doesn't have an entire culture of Liars, but does have a tribal officer, the Tribal Liar, chosen for such skill. See wiki.lspace.org/mediawiki/Tribal_Liar $\endgroup$
    – Catalyst
    Commented Jan 5, 2017 at 17:50
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    $\begingroup$ @Faulkner If you are late all the time, that's one thing. But if you can tell such an entertaining lies about your lateness that your boss looks forward to hearing your being late--that's skill. The downside is that if there really is a legit reason for lateness, your boss automatically expects a lie. Getting caught outright won't get you in extra trouble, but gives your boss a good idea of what your skill sets are as far as talking is concerned. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 7, 2017 at 18:14
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    $\begingroup$ @RichardU Sure, but that's not what we're talking about here. We're talking about a culture where lying is part of the social fabric and understood as something everyone does, and should do to get on in the world. The very best liars in the culture of lies would be the ones who establish themselves as bad liars and get caught, until such time as they want to be believed--which is when they'll do it well. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 11, 2017 at 20:51

7 Answers 7


How might this culture be viewed by cultures that are less honest about lying or that have a view about lying that's more negative?

1. "This Culture"

The culture you are describing, lets simply call them Culture L, Needs to have a reason for all the lying, if it is just something that happens in the culture without any reason then it would not make sense. Societal norms happens for a reason.

It could be that Culture L has a religious belief that compels them to lie, perhaps fearing that a malevolent deity made wise to the truth could then bring a downfall to that truth, or that lying would be a way to ward off the evil spirits, or conversely a positive thing meant to impress the gods.

It could come from corrupt business practices, where everyone is lying about profits and quality of goods to make their offerings and business succeed ("Hey, if everyone is doing it, why not me?")

In any event, Culture L would have a reason to lie, otherwise it would not be a culture of liars, it would just be a bunch of liars in a culture.

2. "Cultures that are less honest about lying"

A culture which is less honest than Culture L (lets call them Culture E) about lying implies that Culture L are to some extent self-conscious about their lying. This would also imply that whatever reason that drives Culture L to lying, might not be 100% accepted throughout the Culture L, or at least not adhered to as extremely as in Culture E.

It could be that the cultural beliefs in Culture E are a more extreme form of whatever belief compels Culture L to lie. If this is the case, Culture E would likely see Culture L as "lesser" because they are not as extreme as Culture E. This would be similar to a form of elitism.

3. "Cultures that have a negative view on lying"

A culture which views lying negatively, (lets call them Culture H) implies that Culture H are more honest. This might mean that they don't share whatever compels Culture L to lie, or are not as extreme as Culture L in that belief. It also means that to some extent honesty is praised since lying is disdainful those who would not lie would be viewed positively.

This might mean that Culture H views Culture L as unworthy of praise, and they might consider them incapable of accomplishing tasks satisfactorily. Being not worthy of praise would mean nothing they could do would be considered worthwhile, regardless of the actual quality of work.

Human Behavior

Humans lie for many reasons, here is a quick blurb from livescience:

It boils down to the shifting sands of the self and trying to look good both to ourselves and others, experts say.

"It's tied in with self-esteem," says University of Massachusetts psychologist Robert Feldman. "We find that as soon as people feel that their self-esteem is threatened, they immediately begin to lie at higher levels."

Not all lies are harmful. In fact, sometimes lying is the best approach for protecting privacy and ourselves and others from malice, some researchers say. Some deception, such as boasting and lies in the name of tact and politeness, can be classified as less than serious. But bald-faced lies (whether they involve leaving out the truth or putting in something false), are harmful, as they corrode trust and intimacy—the glue of society.

An international study on lying was done in over 75 countries:

People who live in the poorest nations tend to believe that they are most effective at spotting whoppers, Dr. Bond notes.

There are differences among cultures in the estimation of how many lies are being told. Taiwanese and Portuguese believe they are hearing about four fibs per week. Americans think they are exposed to eight prevarications weekly. Pakistanis and Algerians tend to be less trusting. Those surveyed in those nations think they are mislead between 12 and 16 times weekly.

There are also differences among nations in peoples' evaluations of their own abilities to lie. In the United States, people believe they can get away with lying 56 percent of the time. Chileans and Argentines, by contrast, believe that they will be caught about 60 percent of the time. Those living in Moldova and Botswana think they are detected lying fewer than 25 percent of the time.

Protestants think they get away with lying about 55 percent of the time while Catholics believe that about half of their lies are detected.

To some extent, lying is a constant fact of life, and lying will likely never be truly eradicated in all forms, but the way we view lies will change constantly. Is it okay to lie about forgetting something so that you feel less bad about not doing something? Who knows. But what is certain is that cultural norms develop over time and change constantly, always propelled forward by the same principles of adaptation for success, if it works, and is successful, then much like evolution - it will continue.


Same as any cultural divide I would imagine. People from one culture would think that the other is rude, unmannered, primitive.

The culture that values honesty more, might think that the other culture has less integrity, or an inconsistent self image. The liars know that you have to alter yourself to be appropriate in a given situation and everyone expects it and appreciates its skillful application. The honest people would think that you're not only being not truthful, but you're not being true to yourself by misrepresenting what you really think.

That could give them a bit of a individualistic/collectivistic bent to the whole dynamic, where the most important thing in the honest society is to be true to yourself and self realization, and social cohesion is more important to the liars. I would imagine that the liars would pay more attention to any given situation they're in, rather than the attributes of the actors involved when they're looking for the cause of someone's behavior.

For example, if someone is saying that one product is of very high quality and goes on to list its features in a convincing way, we, as somewhat-honesty-valuing people, would tend to assume that the person knows what they're talking about. They must be an expert. The liars would know "the expert", is a salesperson and they have a role to play to an audience, which doesn't make them a non-expert, but they would be aware of sources of behavior that were not intrinsic to the person more acutely than a "truther" would. (haha)

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    $\begingroup$ Not that I've included this, but you are dead on about the lying culture being very big on social cohesion and are always looking for how they fit in with any given group. Glad that tracks with what I am doing! +1 $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 29, 2016 at 5:31
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    $\begingroup$ I like that. That makes a lot of sense to me. Social grease as you put it. That's if you lie for "all the right reasons," of course. Some people might lie for very selfish reasons which we would probably call betrayal or disloyalty, so I would imagine your culture has norms for what to lie about as well. $\endgroup$
    – DudeFace
    Commented Dec 29, 2016 at 5:47

Exactly these cultures exist in our culture. Consider the placebo. Is it unethical to prescribe a placebo? The doctor means well for his patient but must lie to make it work. Should you lie and trick a person who trusts you?

I think of the great story of the young western doctor out in the Arabian desert in the 1960s. The local sheik summons him. The doctor is told that the sheik is to be married to his new young wife, but the sheik is old and worried he will not be able to perform on his wedding night. He wants western medicine that will help him. The doctor considers telling him the truth: that medicine had no drug which could reliably achieve this. But the sheik believes in him and what he represents, and the doctor wants to be what the sheik thinks he is. He gives the sheik sublingual nitroglycerin as is used for cardiac angina. He tells the sheik to put one under his tongue when the time comes. He will feel a headache (reliably produced by nitroglycerin) and so know it is working. And everything will get working. The doctor feels bad to have prescribed a placebo, but rationalizes this to himself in that impotence is made worse by worry and that the perception of having powerful western medicine will allay the sheik's worry.

In the morning a servant brings the doctor a beautiful new horse.

In your scenario I imagine this discussion:

The liar: When I trick a person into believing that a better world is possible, it makes that world possible.

The truth teller: When you trick a person so, you give that person false hope. It is better that a person engage with what is and what is real than hope with false hope.

The liar: False hope is better than no hope. A person who believes she can make a difference feels empowered, and that power can flow many ways to make the world better.

The truth teller: Rather than trick her with a lie and risk her empowerment crumbling when the lie is exposed, you should find a real way that she can make a difference.

The liar: If the liar has some art, the way invented with a lie might be better than any real way. And there may be no real way.

The truth teller: Even when there is a real way, you are content not to find it.


The country where lying is part of the culture would probably become less advanced over time compared to a fair country.

Lying all the time is detrimental to business and research practies. It impedes proper economic and scientific development. This is because you have to spend energy in all this lying and decoding the lies. This energy would be better spent in actually trying to achieve what you want to achieve.

Most developped countires have a very strong fair legal system where lying is prohibited and where contracts are enforced. This system of trust is what allowed the Western world to develop. You can try a different system where lying is authorized but I can guarantee you that it won t be as efficient. Without sounding racist, there are countries where the legal and business system are not as fair as in the Western world, look at how well they are doing...

  • $\begingroup$ I would disagree. I know several professors who outright lie in their applications, stating stuff along the lines of "we are experts on Y" (when they've done Y once before) or "this research is guaranteed to give X" (which means "we hope it will") simply to get the grant they need to continue to do research. And it works, they get the grant and can continue to achieve results; perhaps not the ones they promised in their applications, but their research still yields results which is used for society. They need lie to be able to achieve what they want to achieve due to the high competition. $\endgroup$
    – Mrkvička
    Commented Jan 5, 2017 at 7:43
  • $\begingroup$ Contracts are enforced, as are specific oaths. This is cultural rather than legal. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 5, 2017 at 14:05
  • $\begingroup$ I do agree with the central premise of your argument, and have put legal measures in place in this society, so that lying in certain situations does have consequences. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 5, 2017 at 17:32

The answer of how one culture would appreciate another is always "it depends." The fine nuanced differences in our concepts of what a lie is and how good or bad that lie ensure the answer is never clear cut. However, I do think they would appreciate the raw audacity of telling a lie so thoroughly that even you, yourself, believe it! I would expect the other culture to appreciate the audacity of apparently lying about how acceptable lying is, and expect them to applaud them convincing themselves in this lie. I mean, that's serious dedication to the cause!

You ask for examples, and one example always shines out for me, deep in the heart of the scientific community. I love science; I think its a great process! I regularly entrust it with my life because it's one of the best tools we have for many things. But there's an overstep which often occurs which is important enough to me that I'd call it out as one of those specific examples of lying you are looking for.

In the past, I've argued a very careful line with respect to science and magic. I like to argue that they can coexist, but to do so I require science to hold to its truest self, founded on the scientific method. If you dig deep enough into the philosophy, you find that science does not tell you how the world actually works, a subject called ontology, it tells you what you can know about the world, epistemology, and in particular it models observed behaviors very well.

If you recall your schooling, the scientific method never actually proved anything. If you wanted to show that planets revolve around the sun, you would first assume a "null hypothesis" which refutes the status quo. Your null hypothesis would be that planets revolve around the Earth. You would then go develop a test which could show that it is exceedingly unlikely that the observations you saw matched the null hypothesis. You would then declare that whole hypothesis unlikely, leaving only your hypothesis that planets revolve around the sun still standing. However, note that we never actually proved our claim. We merely showed the existing claim did not do well at predicting things, and our model does better.

This is the powerhouse at the core of science which drives it forward. It never actually proves anything to be true, but rather proves that a bunch of other hypotheses are false, until we run out of human creativity and admit that we can't think of any other hypothesis. We then engage in abduction, a mode of thought similar to deduction and induction where one assumes the most likely hypothesis is actually true, and announce that we have proven that planets revolve around the sun. This frees science from philosophical quagmires which give other epistemological processes pause and lets it plumb the mysteries of the universe with abandon. And it's darn good at it!

It turns out that abduction is tricky. Philosophically, it is a field of landmines waiting to go off. This is uncomfortable for many scientists and science minded individuals. How can this process which has had such extraordinary success as to bring us semiconductors, land a man on the moon, and send probes beyond the solar system be anything but perfect?

As a result, we skip over this step. We say "light is made up of photons" when what we really mean is the more lengthy "light is well modeled as though it is made up of photons." It seems like such a little white lie, and it's so much easier to say. I mean, realistically speaking, it's unlikely that we will ever find out that light isn't made of photons, so we can just claim to know the "truth" about reality right? Well, not really. Enter wave-particle duality. Light is not a wave; it is not a particle. It is something different that is sometimes well modeled as a wave, and sometimes well modeled as a particle. We can even capture this something with quantum mechanics and say that it is well modeled as a superposition of wave packets (note that I took care to say it is "well modeled" rather than "it is").

Then, we go to the Physics.SE forum, where countless people are baffled by wave-particle duality. They say "how can it be a wave and a particle at the same time? Does it alternate" and the only true answer is "light is neither a wave nor a particle." But that really bothers people because they were told for years that light was made up of photons, and that that was the truth. I spend a fair bit of time there cleaning up the mess we make when we suggest science can tell us the truth when, in reality, it is only capable of pointing us in the right direction.

So I stood on my soap box here for six paragraphs, and finally worked my way around to lying. There are many scientists who are very familiar with the issue I bring up, and are honest to themselves about the limits of science. They rationalize their act by saying "well, within the context of science, we all know what prove means, and I agree that it does not mean the same thing as "prove" does in mathematics." Then there are those who honestly believe the lie they tell. They truly believe that this scientific method, which never once made a claim that it offered truth, is the only source of truth in the universe.

And thus, this is the lie we tell our students every year. I'd like to think those liars would actually be impressed at what lengths we will go to to convince people that this lie is reality. We will even go so far as to convince ourselves that this is true, even though if you actually dig through all of the processes of science, none of them ever make that claim. We teach our children to not question the mighty magic of the scientific method that lets it mysteriously define the reality around us. And then we wonder why religious individuals take offense at our teachings. And then we wonder why it's so hard to get people into STEM: the higher order classes are continuously having to spend so much time unteaching what was already taught!

  • $\begingroup$ To be fair, you'd think STEM students would have picked up some scepticism along the way. And that is a part of what they were supposed to learn $\endgroup$
    – nzaman
    Commented Jan 7, 2017 at 14:27
  • $\begingroup$ @nzaman I'd agree with you that it's what they were supposed to learn. However, what evidence I've seen shows that that isn't happening enough. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Jan 7, 2017 at 15:38
  • $\begingroup$ And from what I hear from friends teaching in that line, the next batch is even worse. Hopefully that's just gripe $\endgroup$
    – nzaman
    Commented Jan 7, 2017 at 19:27
  • $\begingroup$ When I started university, I went to study chemical engineering. The very first class was chemistry and the very first thing the lecturer said was "Everything you've learned about chemistry up until now, forget it. It's not how chemistry works. You've just been taught a gross simplification to give you some basic and none of it is true". He never did claim what he taught was true either, he simply concluded that "this is how we currently understand chemistry". Thus, I think you have a good point with your post. $\endgroup$
    – Mrkvička
    Commented Jan 7, 2017 at 20:25

Lets be honest here (heh).

Every culture subconsciously believes they're better than everyone else, that's why we're us and you're you. All your proposed culture is doing is giving any visiting culture an obvious reason to feel better about themselves. In other words, one of the better ways to compliment others is to denigrate oneself.

Foreign cultures may mock your lying culture behind their backs, or even to their face, but they'll be VERY friendly with them.
And praise their diplomacy.


Fascinating topic! I've been playing with a similar idea myself for a while now.

Depending on the level of development in your world, you might want to break up the perceptions the "honest" culture has of the dishonest one.

Perhaps socially, the dishonest culture would be viewed negatively by others, maybe making things like tourism and intercultural relationships difficult. However some might view members of the dishonest culture as more desirable mates/partners since they could, in theory, be easier to get along with and/or compete better against rivals.

In business, they might be viewed as risky or even treacherous, or they might be sought after as shrewd business partners. Are there lawyers in the culture/world you are making? Would it be fair to assume that they could make excellent legal councelors?

As for politics, I think it would depend on where the line is drawn in terms of the kinds of lies told. If it's limited to misdirection or omission of certain details, perhaps they could maintain constructive relations with other cultures. If they also include breaking treaties/oaths/contracts as permissible, I don't really know how that would work out in the absence of coercion.

The other point, of course, is how different the other cultures' views on lying are. If it's a culture with a strict moral code or honor system, they might be openly hostile towards people who live outside of their value system. Others might still work with them, but be more distrustful and controlling.

What might serve as an example of the latter is intercultural dynamics in terms of language and communication, specifically: "burden of communication" and "high vs. low context cultures". Basically, a member of one culture might find himself "translating" everything said by someone from the "dishonest" culture in order to get to the cold, hard facts.They would then ask very direct questions to follow up. The other person might be aggravated by this if they feel threatened in some way due to the situation.

On the flip side, someone from the dishonest culture might have a hard time with an outsider that doesn't understand the subtleties of their communication style, such as catching on to and playing along with a bluff in a high stakes situation.

I know this is a place to provide answers, but I do have a question that's nagging at me hard. If the culture you're building values prowess in deception, how are the people supposed to evaluate that trait in others if being able to do so means that the deception failed? If the people of that culture are good liars, because that's what they are taught and encouraged to do, I assume they would also be good lie detectors.

How would people know that someone successful didn't become so by being honest? Would people just automatically believe that he/she had made it to the top by being an exceptional liar? If it were found out that someone had made it to a position of power in that culture, without the use of deceptions, would that person lose stature, popularity/respect, power?

As I said at the beginning, this is a fascinating topic and I'm probably going to lose a lot of sleep thinking about it. Thanks a lot.

Just for fun, you might want to check out "The Invention of Lying". It's a light romcom that sort of goes in the opposite direction of the culture you're building.

(This is my first post here, so I hope I haven't broken too many rules. My apologies for any damages.)


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