Avoid deception!

We need principles to lead good lives. If we always tried to figure out what to do and say based on our core life goals and moral convictions, we’d be slow as snails; conversely, we can’t pre-determine and remember precise rules for every possible situation; and with no guidance at all, we would likely act against our stated goals and beliefs.

Good principles are rules of thumb that are broadly applicable, are easy to remember, and result in behaviour and outcomes that are consistent with our goals and beliefs.

Now, here’s a principle for you: Avoid deception (1). Avoid things designed to deceive, avoid people who try to deceive, and avoid deceptive behaviour in yourself.

Wearing a wig, sandblasting jeans to make them look worn (2), wearing concealer (make-up), telling a lie, and faux leather are all examples of attempts at deception. Avoid them.

There is some chance that you have life goals that are not well served by this principle. Before you can assess that, however, you’ll need to understand it. So, please, humour me.

To be clear, this is not Radical Honesty (3). Avoiding deception does not demand that you volunteer whatever you’re thinking or expose everything you do. You may safely assume that other people understand that you have knowledge, opinions, or traits that they don’t know about. Should they ask, however, you should either answer truthfully or decline, not lie.

There are both practical and moral implications of avoiding deception:

  • Deception requires effort to perform or maintain. This effort is better spent on improvements. For example, lying imposes mental load – you have to keep a parallel version of the world in your head for each set of lies. Things get even more complicated if you tell different versions of a lie to different people. It is hard enough to think and converse well without this handicap.

  • Deception introduces inconsistency and people are great at noticing this. Sometimes it’s obvious, other times something just feels off. You say one thing, your body another. You behave as if you own the place, no one else does. The table looks like solid wood, but breaks when you dance on it. When we avoid deception we promote consistency.

  • If you avoid deception you will end up in situations that force you to face the world as it is and soon enough you will learn to accept it. If you dislike how the world is you have two choices: fix it or move on. When you no longer have the choice to deceive (which you probably didn’t do as well as you thought anyway), you have a stronger incentive to improve things that can be improved – body, skills, or lifestyle. Not quick fixes, real fixes. This feels oddly liberating.

  • You will relinquish some short-term benefits. Someone might become upset with you when you could have avoided that with a lie or you might not convince that particular woman or man to have dinner with you. These might seem like substantial sacrifices, but they are also costlier than you think. Not only do you damage your reputation and fail to build self-respect, you avoid working on the fundamentals which will make you more effective in the long run.

  • Deception is equivalent to introducing noise in society. This is an externality – the deceptive party might benefit at the cost of others who make suboptimal decisions because information is lacking or expensive. (4) This is true for consumer goods, dating, and business. This is a moral argument for avoiding deception, not a practical one (though it can help you build your reputation or brand).

Whether your goal is to maximise your impact on the world, to experience as much pleasure and enjoyment as possible, or to be a good parent, I believe that you will do well to avoid deception.

You want to give this a try? Good idea. Start with evaluating things from the perspective of deception before you try to change your own behaviour. Is what I just told my friend deceptive? Is the make-up I’m wearing deceptive? Is this table trying to appear to be higher quality than it is? Is that man trying to look like he doesn’t care when he actually does?

When you feel comfortable with that, avoid things that deceive in favour of things that don’t. Pick knitwear made of pure wool instead of acrylic mixes. Buy a white table instead of a wood veneer one. Get real flowers instead of silk ones.

Finally, adjust your behaviour to avoid deception. Tell your boyfriend that his pasta was overcooked. Focus on building strength, endurance, and skill in the gym, not on losing weight or bulking up (though those might be side effects). Use bright red lipstick but avoid concealer and foundation. Don’t wear a Harvard sweater if you haven’t studied at Harvard.

Try it. Maybe you’ll like it, maybe you won’t. If nothing else, you’ll familiarise yourself with a different perspective. Remember, it’s a principle, not an absolute rule. See you on the other side.

Thanks to Jan Sramek for discussions and feedback.


  1. Deception is the deliberate act of making someone believe something that is not true.

  2. Jeans made to look light is not deceptive since raw denim doesn’t become light even after extended wear so can not be confused with jeans worn for a long time. Dark jeans artificially made to look worn in “the right places” are trying to imitate the look of “raw denim” worn extensively before washing.

  3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radical_Honesty

  4. An aside here is that brands can provide an incentive for companies to avoid deception, when otherwise they would have little. Over time people learn that a given brand is deceptive and avoid it. Consumer goods companies like P&G and Unilever can experiment with deception more agressively because they can survive one of their many brands taking a bit of beating (and exchange it for another in the worst case). Deception is of course not always noticed and often effectively confused by marketing.