Feelings about Lying to Someone

Delight, guilt and the fear of being caught lying

lying to someone

Excerpt from Emotions Revealed

The range of emotions we feel when lying to someone

The three emotions most frequently experienced by people when they are lying are fear, guilt, and somewhat surprisingly, delight.


The fear of being caught lying is the most common emotion felt about engaging in a lie. But fear is only generated when the stakes are high. Even then, not all lairs will fear being caught lying. If the target of a person’s lie has a reputation for being gullible, or if the liar has been repeatedly successful in the past in telling just such a lie to his or her target, or a person very similar to the target, it is unlikely that the liar will feel or express fear.


Guilt is another emotion that may be experienced during certain lies. Guilt is not likely when the lie is authorized, such as the lie by an undercover police agent, a spy planted by another country, or a salesman explicitly encouraged to misrepresent a product. When lying to someone is not authorized, or there is ambiguity about whether there is an obligation to be truthful, guilt about lying may be aroused, especially when the liar’s target can’t be easily faulted as mean or unfair, and the liar and his or her target share values and expect to have a continuing relationship.


Still another emotion about engaging in lying is what I have called duping delight, which I have defined as the sheer pleasure obtained by taking the risk and meeting the challenge of having control over another person. Contempt, excitement, and enjoyment are all likely to be rolled into duping delight. Duping delight is hard to contain, often motivating bragging that will betray a lie. It is most likely when the liar’s target is considered to be difficult to fool, and others allied with the liar are present who know that a lie is being perpetrated.

These are not the only emotions that may be felt about engaging in a serious lie, one in which the consequences matter for the liar and the target. The liar may be angry at his or her target for a variety of reasons, but may believe it is necessary to conceal the anger in order to succeed in the lie. In a similar fashion, a liar may feel disgust toward his or her target. Or a liar may feel either of these emotions about him or her self for engaging in the lie.

It is important to remember that there are no signs of lying itself, only hot spots. Emotions that don’t fit the context can be a bit spot, but emotions can occur for many reasons, not just because of lying to someone.

Emotion signals don’t tell us what brought them forth. We risk making Othello’s error, jumping to the conclusion that an emotion we observe is due to lying without considering other factors that might have triggered the emotion. While it is tempting to make such a judgment, we must tolerate ambiguity until we can gather more information to be certain that the hot spot is due to lying and not some other trigger.

Paul Ekman is a well-known psychologist and co-discoverer of micro expressions. He was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by TIME magazine in 2009. He has worked with many government agencies, domestic and abroad. Dr. Ekman has compiled over 50 years of his research to create comprehensive training tools to read the hidden emotions of those around you.

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