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What is a lie?
According to deception expert, Dr. Paul Ekman, a lie is "an act in which someone makes a deliberate choice to mislead another person(s) without giving prior notification of that intention."
Are there different types of lies?
The two primary types of lies
- Concealing: withholding some information
Example: When asked by your significant other how your day was at work, you shrug it off and refrain from mentioning that you were actually laid off that day.
- Falsifying: presenting false information as if it were true
Example: When asked by your significant other how your day was at work, you say, “Great! I was promoted,” when in reality you were laid off that day.
It’s important to note that not everyone considers concealment to be lying. When there is a choice about how to lie, most of us prefer concealing to falsifying because it is typically easier than making up an elaborate story (and then having to remember it). Concealment may also seem less reprehensible than falsifying as it is passive, not active.
Other ways to lie
- Misdirecting: acknowledging an emotion but misidentifying what caused that emotion
- Example: When being questioned about lying, you admit to feeling panicked but claim it is due to the fear that your innocence is under suspicion rather than the truth which is that you’re panicking about being caught in a lie.
- Telling the truth falsely: telling the truth but with such exaggeration or humor that the target remains uninformed or misled
- Example: A teenager doesn’t want to take their vitamins one morning and decides to flush them down the toilet instead. When their parent asks them if they took their vitamins, the teen sarcastically admits, “No, I flushed them down the toilet!” The teen states this with such irony that the parent is misled to believe that they did, in fact, take their vitamins.
- Half-concealment: admitting only part of the truth, allowing the liar to maintain the lie without ever saying anything untrue
- Example: When asked about their company’s performance, a CEO responds, “We’re doing great! We made twice as much money this year,” while failing to mention that they also spent four times as much money than the previous period and lost half their staff.
- Incorrect-inference dodge: telling the truth but in a way that implies the opposite of what is said
- Example: A friend invited you to their dinner party and asks how you liked their casserole dish. You thought it was disgusting but your respond with a dodge, saying, “Wow! I’ve never tasted anything like that before,” deceptively implying you enjoyed your meal without actually saying anything untrue.
What is not a lie?
Simply telling a person incorrect or untrue information does not necessarily mean deception has occurred. In fact, there are four common ways we mislead others without ever intending to deceive them. Such scenarios include memory failure, false statements, misinterpreting events, and believing the lie.
Read more about what isn’t considered a lie here.
Whether or not we like it, deception is a central characteristic of life. Most (if not all) human relationships involve some form of deceit, or at least the possibility of it. Lies occur between those we love and trust as much as they do with those we dislike, and even happens among complete strangers.
Lies, both big and small, occur every day between romantic partners, parents and children, teachers and students, doctors and patients, witnesses and juries, lawyers and clients, salespersons and customers... to name a few.
Why do we lie?
People resort to lying for so many different reasons that it’d be impossible to list them all. However, of the nine most common motives for telling lies, avoiding punishment is the primary motivator for both children and adults. Other typical reasons include wanting to avoid embarrassment, exercising power over others, and winning the admiration of others, to name a few.
Can lying be a good thing?
From Dr. Ekman’s perspective, there is no simple answer to this question. Instead, he believes that it is most important to consider both the situation and intention of the parties involved. Just as lies can be cruel, sometimes the truth can be used to inflict pain. Similarly, while the truth is often well-intentioned, there are occasions where lies can be used for altruistic purposes as well.
Considering the complexity of the question and how many factors are at play, no one should presume that someone desires to be misled, just as no one should too easily presume the right to expose every lie.
Why do some lies fail?
Occasionally, we encounter lies that are performed so beautifully that nothing the liar says or does betrays their lie. However, this is rare, even for skilled liars.
More frequently, lies fail due to some noticeable change in our voice, posture and/or facial expression which gives away an emotion we are feeling but trying to hide. The more emotions involved, and the stronger they are, the more likely it is that the lie will be betrayed by some form of emotional leakage. Lies also fail because of “bad lines”, cover stories that are inconsistent or discrepant with other indisputable facts.
Learn more about what lies look like and how to detect deception.
Do we really want to know if someone is lying?
In most cases, there’s no quick or easy way to detect deception and, even if there were, we might not like what we discover.
So, while people often claim to want to know the truth, there are many instances in which it is more comforting to believe the lies. In these circumstances, we tend to ignore deception clues and excuse otherwise suspicious behaviors to avoid the potentially negative consequences of uncovering the lies we’re told.
Still want to know if you’re being lied to? Check out our micro expressions training tools to learn how!
Learn to recognize and respond to the emotional expressions of others with our online micro expressions training tools to increase your ability to detect deception and catch subtle emotional cues.
Expand your knowledge of emotional skills and competencies with in-person workshops offered through Paul Ekman International.
Build your emotional vocabulary with the Atlas of Emotions, a free, interactive learning tool created by Drs. Paul and Eve Ekman at the request of the Dalai Lama.