Why People Lie

Written March, 2009

“I thought I was only going 55 miles an hour officer” claims the driver speeding at 70 mph. “My wristwatch stopped so I had no idea that I got home 2 hours after my curfew”, says the teenager. Avoiding punishment is the most frequent reason people tell serious lies, regardless of their age, whether it be to avoid the speeding ticket or being grounded. In serious lies there is a threat of significant damage if the lie is discovered: loss of freedom, money, job, relationship, reputation, or even life itself.

It is only in such serious lies, in which the liar would be punished if detected, that lies are detectable from demeanor – facial expression, body movements, gaze, voice, or words. The threat imposes an emotional load, generating involuntary changes that can betray the lie. The lies of everyday life where it doesn’t matter if they are detected – no punishment or rewards — that lies are easily told flawlessly.

In serious lies the falsehood is usually told to conceal the reward or benefit the liar obtained by breaking a rule or explicit expectation. The curfew violator was able to stay longer at the party; the speeding driver is rushing because he pushed the snooze button when the alarm went off. The husband who claims the ringer on the telephone in his office must have been turned off when he was ‘working’ late – in a hotel room with his girlfriend – will pay no price if his lie succeeds. In each of these examples, the rule breaker decides before breaking a rule that he or she will if questioned lie to cover the cheating. Sometimes the reward could have been achieved – a high mark on an exam — without cheating but not as easily, it would have taken more effort (hours of study in this example).

Protecting someone else from harm is the next most important reason why people tell serious lies. You don’t want your friend, you fellow worker, your sibling, your spouse – anyone who you care about — to get punished, even if you don’t agree with what the person you are protecting did that put him or her in danger. It is not certain whether society approves of these lies. When policemen refuse to testify against a fellow officer they know has broken the law, we respect their motives but many people believe they should be truthful. Yet the terms we use – rat, fink, snitch – are derogatory. Anonymous call-in lines exist so those who volunteer information can avoid any loss of reputation or danger by informing. Do we have different standards for people who take the initiative to inform as compared to those who inform when directly asked to reveal information? I will reconsider this issue in a later newsletter when I write about children’s lies and why we don’t want them to tattle.

To protect yourself from being harmed even when you have not broken any rule is still another motive. The child home alone who tells the stranger knocking on the door “my father is taking a nap come back later”, has committed no misdeed that he or she is concealing; it is a self-protection lie.

Some lies are told to win admiration from others. Boasting about something untrue is an obvious instance. It is common in children, some adolescents, and even adults. If discovered it harms the reputation of the boaster, but not much more than that. Claiming falsely to have earned money for previous investors moves into the criminal realm.

To maintain privacy, without asserting that right, is another reason why people may lie. A daughter answering her mother’s question “who were you talking to on the phone just now”, by naming a girlfriend not the boy who is asking her out on a date is an example. It is only when there is a strong trusting relationship, that a child would feel brave enough to say “that’s private”, announcing the right to have a secret. Another topic I will return to in my newsletter about trust.

Some people lie for the sheer thrill of getting away with it, testing their unsuspected power. Many children will at some point lie to their parents simply to see if they can do it. Some people do this all the time enjoying the power they obtain in controlling the information available to the target.

Avoiding embarrassment is still another motive for some serious and many trivial lies. The child who claims the wet seat resulted from spilling a glass of water, not from wetting her pants is an example, if the child did not fear punishment for her failure, just embarrassment.

Avoiding embarrassment is relevant to many less serious lies that come under the rubric of lies-of-everyday-life. Very often people lie to get out of an awkward social situation. They may not know how to do it – “cant get a babysitter” offered to avoid another dull evening and food. “Sorry I am on my way out the door”, an excuse given by people who do not feel brave enough to be truthful even to a totally unknown telephone solicitor.

Then there are the deceptions that are required by politeness — “thanks so much for the lovely party’; “that color really looks good on you”. I don’t consider these to be lies, anymore than bluffing in poker is a lie, or acting in a play is lying, or the asking price not being the selling price. In all of these instances the target does not expect to be told the truth, there is notification. But the impostor is a liar, as is the con man, because they are taking advantage of our expectation that we will be told the truth. More about this in my newsletter about the different techniques for lying.