Rules About Trust

I’ve talked about it lots of times before: The high cost of lying and deception — by politicians and police, corporate executives and clergy, even journalists, accountants and educators — has been to weaken every major social institution.

As each of these institutions wages its separate battle to remove the cloud of suspicion and cynicism that hovers over it, there are certain truths about trust that must be understood and dealt with.

First, there is no shortcut to building trust. In fact, rebuilding trust on the rubble of lost credibility is much harder. The antidote is nothing less than scrupulous and consistent honesty — especially when the truth is costly.

Second, where trust is important, there are no little lies. In some ways lies, however small they seem, are like germs. Without the antibody of trust they cause infections that can kill credibility.

Third, the lethal quality of lies lasts long after the lie is told. And even lies told years ago have an immediate poisonous effect on trust when they are discovered. Think of all the prominent people who have been undone by the discovery of falsehoods on old resumes.

Fourth, while honesty and forthrightness don’t always seem to pay, dishonesty and concealment always cost. It’s true that in some settings nothing good may come of admitting wrongdoing, but it gets a lot worse when you don’t.

Fifth, lies breed other lies. It’s harder to tell just one lie than to have just one potato chip. Once you start lying, it takes an ever-growing bodyguard of new lies to protect the old ones.

Finally, don’t be seduced by the “fight fire with fire” excuse or all you’ll end up with is the ashes of your integrity. Self-justifications aside, you can’t lie to a liar or cheat a cheater without becoming a liar and cheater.

This is Michael Josephson reminding you that character counts.

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Comments 5

  1. Michael,
    I believe one of the largest institution in our country that has eroded trust has to be the media with politicians coming in a close second. It is sad, discouraging and sometimes i’m sure borders on illegal what the media puts out there just for the big story; instead of reporting the complete truth and the real facts they infuse there own views and try to sell us on the fact that this is somehow the views of mainstream American life. Sadly many of us believe the big lie because it was told on the big screen, on the web or whatever arena they use to report news. Kindness, good deeds and other acts done by good people are seldom reported they may somehow help change the character of our country and then the media would have no wow effect!!! I pray for the future of my kids and grand kids, this world has changed and not for the better.

  2. Effectively risk of telling lies is that you will never stop telling new lies. Reason for this is because lies provide an advantage to the liar (could be similar to doping in sports). Problem is to define what is a lie and to me this happens when an statement is not consistent with reality. Problem surface when the statement cannot be confronted with reality – for example God existence -.

  3. I was looking for the “play” button on your web page to hear Michael read his essay, but I don’t see it. Has it been removed or does it not work in firefox or safari?

    1. Thanks for your interest and feedback, Evan. We have fixed this technical problem. You should be able to play audio for all of the commentaries now.

  4. I have encountered a situation where my teenage daughter significantly lied to me even after numerous attempts to make her understand the values of integrity and honesty. I suppose it may have something to do with age and pushing limits which we all do regardless of the situation. But this particular post is especially enlightening because you are right, dishonesty sometimes pays and then truth very often hurts. My thought on this is that to me, liars (and lying) are gamblers (a form of gambling), where limits are pushed, and the consequences (losses) increase as it goes farther along. You may get a lucky streak and get away with a few lies (winning) but then this only feeds off the need to keep going until you get caught (or lose your shirt) and can’t get any further. So statistically speaking, if you are a habitual gambler, you may win some here and there, but the habit will eventually lead you to lose, and you will eventually lose everything. I wanted to emphasize to my daughter however, that with all of life’s imperfections, owning up to lie or deception might be costly, but you cut your losses early enough and will soon have the opportunity to start over. Whereas until this happens, you are building your snowball of lies that will come crashing to ruin everything that is dear to you. People do this often when they have nothing to lose unfortunately. This would then become a social/economic problem that society will have to address because often individual choices are impacted by the environment they or we are all in.

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