Liars in Literature

December 15, 2012 BY danariely

Sometimes people ask me what I like to read. Sadly, I don’t have a lot of time to read non-work related things, but here are a few of my favorite lie- and liar-based texts!


1)   The complete works of Sigmund Freud.


A list of the best books related to human nature, lying, and cheating would be nowhere without Freud and the explanatory power of rationalization. I know I should choose just one of them, but I’m not at home and can’t look through my books, and it’s been so long since I’ve read them, and I think I lost my notes…


2)   Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome K Jerome.


My abiding love for this particular book has to do with many things—its comical style has aged well these last 100 plus years. Moreover, Jerome nicely captures our tendency toward dishonesty; we’re all a little dishonest, but only inasmuch as we can justify to ourselves:

“I knew a young man once, he was a most conscientious fellow and, when he took to fly-fishing, he determined never to exaggerate his hauls by more than twenty-five per cent… “But I will not lie any more than that, because it is sinful to lie.””


3)   A Million Little Pieces by James Frey.


A monument of embellishment, this highly fictionalized nonfiction account of Frey’s life offers a fresh take on the stories we tell to and about ourselves, that is, he shows us that people don’t just lie to make themselves look better. Where most people would elide events, Frey makes them more violent and grotesque. But of course, he had a whole lot to gain from doing so.


4)   How to Lie with Statistics by Darrell Huff.


I think it’s important to acknowledge that the scientific process, though we often look to it as revealing the truth about the things around us, is also full of problems. Duff sets about showing, in highly comedic fashion, how to skew a sample population, alter graphs to belie findings, disguise the actual nature of the claim, and so on.


5)   White Coat, Black Hat: Adventures on the Dark Side of Medicine by Carl Elliott.


Conflicts of interest, which are everywhere, underlie a lot of unintentionally dishonest behavior. This book takes a good, long look at the ways they bedevil medicine and create an amazing array of problems for everyone involved – with a very high cost for patients and society.


6)    The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn


Huck begins his narrative with the nature of lying and authorship: “There was things which he [Mark Twain] stretched, but mainly he told the truth.  That is nothing.  I never seen anybody but lied one time or another…” We can learn a lot watching Huck navigate the tricky of nature of truth and deception as he navigates the Mississippi, which is, incidentally, an adventure he inaugurates by faking his own death.


Happy reading!