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Lying: strategy vs identity

Hello Lucio,

here is the context:

At some point in my life I was not as honest as I wanted to be (I did not know any better). A few years ago I decided to be the most honest man I can be as I learned what honesty was I valued it a lot. It is one of my main values.

I also realized while developing my honesty that one can be too honest and being taken advantage of.

With your website I learn how also to be strategic (and ethical).


I was coaching an intern and I was talking to her out loud about a book that an infectious disease specialist recommended me. I asked him via email for advice. For the context my colleagues also got access to an important paper and info because I asked questions to an other specialist.

And when I told the intern about this book a colleague who’s a warm person but is not a team player (protects her territory out of proportion) heard about it and asked me if I could send her the reference. A good book is a gold mine as you know. And it’s an advantage over one’s peers.

So I said yes but I did not want to as she did nothing to deserve it. So I thought about it and I sent her another reference from Amazon which had good reviews, not the book the specialist recommended me.

My rationale for this behavior:

1. She never helped me and is playing competition with me.
2. I am the one who asked for it and most of my peers are not as proactive (example above with the paper) so it feels like she would get something from me she would not have found otherwise.
3. My mistake is that I helped people in the past who were not either deserving and who were actively competing against me.

So I’m feeling a little bit guilty not to have withheld my identity of the kind of person who always says the truth.

What do you think?

Hey John,

This is both a profound and important topic that eventually deserves its own article.

Personally, I think that there is some degree of grey area between the "obviously ethical/honest" and "obviously unethical/dishonest".
And so there is also some degree of personal choice on what it means to be a honest, ethical, and value-adding individual person.

Of course, there is also much, if not more, that is not up for discussion.
But still, since the grey area is real, this is something that anyone who wants to be a positive force in the world should take some time to think of.

Selective Collaboration: Fair to Be Unfair With Unfair Folks? Yes...

In my own value system, I consider it fair to be dishonest with dishonest people who take more than they give (up to a certain point and within certain limits, of course).

And in some cases, I consider it a duty to disempower highly dishonest and value-subtracting individuals -especially when those individuals are in a position of power, since the more power a dishonest person has, the more damage he can make-.

The rationale is simple: society as well as our great civilization are based on people who cooperate and add value. The only way to advance society and contribute to the overall good is to cooperate and add value. Individuals who take more than they give are cheating that system. They are handicapping society and doing a disservice to everyone.

So, it's fair not to give those people anything and, under certain circumstances, it can be fair to even take from them.

I haven't written on it, but when I will, I am thinking of calling this approach "selective collaboration".

Changing Identity?

So maybe you could think of changing your identity to something slightly different that takes the exceptions into account.

For example:

"I'm proud to be an honest person.
I am an honest person with people who are equally honest and I love adding value to people who also add value to others. Unluckily, exceptions must be made for dishonest people and value-subtracting people who just take and do not contribute to my well-being, and to the greater good".

Otherwise, you can just think of yourself as "value-adding", rather than "honest".
Value-adding already includes that you do not give value to value takers and nasty players, since that would be like throwing good value into a black hole that just swallows it.

Your specific case: a different approach?

In your case, if you deemed that the person was shortchanging the social exchange system, then I'd personally consider it fair not to give her anything of value.

However, there are two reasons why I'd have probably chosen a different path:

  1. Giving a different title didn't just avoid adding value, but potentially subtracted value, since she'll be reading a book that might not be good and she might be wasting time (if she's really a bad player, then still fair enough. If not, then it might have been too much)
  2. The risk inherent with lies (read later)

So, personally, in your case, I would have probably not sent her anything and made her chase for it. When you make her chase for it, you make it more obvious that she's being a taker. It's a bit like women who purposefully try to make men chase. It's a power move through inaction that increases her social debt and inflates your social credit.

Alternatively, you could have thought about sending her the reference -maybe even after making her chase for it once-, and then say:

You: here it is. The best resource I've read on the topic. You owe me one :)".

I call this "honest exchange talk", such as: you explicitly tell people that you expect them to contribute back. Some people need that reminder, and some people add value to each other only when you make the "value accounting" explicit.

Then, observe her reaction.
Still gives nothing? Ok, then she's a lost cause. Good to know.
Does she pay back? Alright, then you know that you need to ask for your value back with her (annoying, I know, but that's the only way some people contribute back).

The risk of lies

Finally, you must take into account the risk of lies.

Honesty, collaboration, and adding value are most proficuous in long-term relationships and repeated interactions.
The opposite is also true: lies and dishonesty become the most risky in those same long-term relationships and repeated interactions.

You never know that a lie you said a year ago will not come to the surface and tarnish your reputation.
Maybe that lady talks to the infectious disease expert, or to the intern, and then both of them, not just the cheating lady, will know about the lie -and worse: the intern and the disease expert will not know that your lie was fair game-.

Of course, chances are that this lie will never be discovered.
But you know where I'm going with this: the more of these situations you create, the higher the risk that some of them will tarnish your reputation.

That's why, even in this case, I would have probably avoided the outright lie.

Long answer, I know.
Let me know your thoughts on this.


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First, thank you very much for taking the time for this elaborate answer. I know it will be useful for your other readers as well. I agree with you that it is a very important topic for someone who wants to be a force of good in the World.

"selective collaboration".

Great concept. I think it's an extension of the "tit-for-tat" reciprocal strategy talked about in the selfish gene and other books as the most optimal strategy for thriving in social exchange.

  1. On the first turn you always give
  2. If the person gives back you keep giving
  3. If the person keeps taking you copy what the person does

It's very schematic and my understanding of it is quite limited I believe. I agree this concept deserve its own page on your site as it is also an extension of the law of social exchange.

Here are my thoughts: Wow. I'm blown away once more. I think your perspective is a mature one and I agree about the lie being found out. I sent her the right title pretending it was a mix-up. Actually it was a mistake to send her the wrong title. I usually don't do that that's why I was feeling so guilty.

Aside from the solution to my issue, I do think that the depth you went into is very very important. In my case I chose the less-than-optimal behavior but I think one should have a default behavioral pattern for dealing with these people, such as tit-for-tat or what you propose.

In brief: powerful ideas and concepts in this post that I think deserve to be expanded in PU or on the website as an article.

I'm very grateful to you for this golden nugget of wisdom.

If you write a book or even if you include such a part on your website or in PU, my suggestion would be to write a chapter "Mindset" (how this person thinks) and another "Identity" (what this person does or does not), so people can know what it looks like to act and think like a value-adding high-quality man/woman. There are plenty of different golden nuggets about these two things on the site and seeing them all in one place would be helpful for a learner like me.

Thanks also for the "value-adding", I added to my values (not a pun).

Yes, thank you for giving me the chance of expanding on this topic.

It definitely deserves a post.
Maybe something like "Life strategies & ethical Machiavellianism. Giving, without being a sucker".

Maybe a paragraph in PU, too, albeit not yet sure where.

And yes, you are correct.
It's part of tit-for-tat and an important extension of the social exchange theory.
There have been several more experiments and researches into repeated games.

"The Origins of Virtue" provides a good overview.
Some interesting variations:

  • Generous tit for that: forgives mistakes and 1/3 of the times overlooks a defection

This one breaks vicious cycles of defection while still remaining immune to exploitative strategies.

This is the real-life equivalent of "extending an olive branch", which I've been often recommending in case of souring relationships. I think it makes sense because you can turn a former enemy into a friend/collaborator.
Especially if your olive branch is low risk like a smile, followed by an invite for lunch or something like that.

  • Discriminating altruism: avoid playing with former defectors

It’s immune to being invaded by selective defectors. In repeated games, contrary to tit-for-tat, it can re-invade an antisocial population.

And in real-life, this is my go-to strategy for people that you can pick and remove from your life.
Such as, you are more limited to using this strategy at work, but it's great for intimate relationships and close friends: you simply do not offer any of those roles for non-value-adding folks.


John Freeman has reacted to this post.
John Freeman
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Oh, and P.S.: great idea in communicating the right book afterward and say the first one was a mistake. Great strategic thinking there.


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John Freeman
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Thanks a lot!

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