University of Toronto Magazine University of Toronto Magazine

Honest Lying

Brain dysfunction can cause us to make false statements that we believe to be true

Throughout our lives, we sometimes make statements that we know to be false. But there are also instances where people will lie because they deeply believe something to be true, even though it isn’t. Morris Moscovitch, the Max and Gianna Glassman Chair in Neuropsychology and Aging at U of T, has dubbed this phenomenon “honest lying.”

It arises most commonly in people who are suffering from a brain dysfunction caused by damage to the frontal lobes. Moscovitch says honest lies can be obviously untrue – claims of having travelled in outer space – but also can consist of memories. (For example, a man who says he spent the weekend with his wife, even though she’s deceased.)

Even healthy people can engage in a mild form of “honest lying,” according to a recent article in Scientific American: “We sometimes explain away unusual phenomena without ever becoming conscious of our own fibbing.” To understand where “honest lies” come from neuroscientists are investigating how we form memories, and our sense of what’s real.

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