Why People Lie

Looking through a book of trivia the other day, I came across a list of “famous fibs.” Although I added a few from my own experience, I’m sure the list could be much longer.

In Business

About Speeding

About Lost Homework


The check is in the mail.

We service what we sell.

Money is cheerfully refunded.

This is a limited time offer!

One size fits all.

Your table will be ready in one minute.

You must be mistaken. All calls are logged and we have no such record.

I had to get to a restroom.

I had no idea I was speeding.

My accelerator was stuck.

My wife is having a baby.

I’m having a baby.

The kids were driving me crazy so I was rushing to get home.

There was no speed limit posted.

My mother threw it away by mistake.

The dog ate it.

It blew away on the way to school.

I did it at my grandparents’ house and then the house burned down.

My sister scribbled all over it.

My computer crashed and I lost everything!

I lost internet access.

Open wide, this won’t hurt a bit.

I’ll start the diet tomorrow.

This hurts me more than it hurts you.

I need just a minute of your time.

Of course I made it to the gym last week.

You look great in those jeans.

That beard makes you look like [hot famous male of choice].

Although this list was compiled tongue-in-cheek, it got me thinking about lying in general. Just how common is lying, why do people lie and how do lies impact daily interactions and the relationships we have at work and elsewhere?

Chocolate Pinocchio by Le grand Cricri, Wikimedia Commons

How Common is Lying?

Let’s start with that first question: how common is lying. Research shows that lying is very common. For example, author Pamela Meyer (Liespotting), claims in this Ted Talk that we are lied to by the people we interact with 10-200 times a day. In support of that estimate, a study, conducted by psychologist Robert S. Feldman and published in the Journal of Basic and Applied Social Psychology[1], found that most people lie in everyday conversation in order to appear likable and competent. In fact, the study found that 60 percent of people lied at least once (most told an average of two to three lies) during a 10-minute conversation. Interestingly, many of the subjects of research studies into lying behavior were not even aware of how many lies they interjected into a typical conversation until they viewed video playback of their conversations.

So, not only do we lie a lot, sometimes we do it on autopilot!

Why do We Lie?

People lie for a lot of different reasons, ranging from the innocuous to the pathological.

Some of the most common lies are social lubricant lies: those that keep social interactions positive and prevent confrontation. These “white lies” are typically aimed at preventing hurt feelings and anyone who is inept at using them is often categorized as cruel or brutally honest.  Most psychologists agree that this type of lying has a net positive impact on society and relationships[2].

Other reasons for lying are more troublesome.

Self-aggrandizement: One of the most common reasons for lying is to make oneself look good (or prevent oneself from looking bad). These types of lies include exaggerating successes, inflating results, suggesting that one’s role in a particular situation was more critical than it was, etc. Lies of self-aggrandizement are generally fuelled by underlying insecurities about competence or a desire to gain approval and/or be liked.

Consequence avoidance: Children start lying around the age of 4-5[3] when they first begin to realize that lies can allow them to manipulate outcomes. Soon, they learn that unpleasant consequences can be avoided with a plausible lie (admittedly, their first lies are seldom plausible, but it’s amazing how quickly they learn!) Some people continue throughout their lives to avoid being penalized for their actions by lying. Lies that fall into this category would include calling in sick on a summer Friday in order to take a long weekend at the beach; saying a personal emergency (not sleeping in!) caused that important meeting to be missed; or blaming someone else for one’s own mistake.

Personal gain: At one time or another, most of us tell a fib for personal gain. One of the most common is falsifying a resume to help land a job. Since 58% of employers have caught a lie on a resume, it stands to reason that many more resume lies go undetected. Other ways that people lie for personal gain include everything from exaggerating positive characteristics on a dating site to taking credit for work done by others to garner recognition and promotion at work.

Antipathy: The most insidious lies are those told with deliberate intent to damage someone else. The reason slander and libel are legally actionable is the potential they have to destroy reputations, careers and lives. In recent years the internet has added a whole new arena for the activities of the deliberately destructive liar. It can be hard to determine what motivates someone who uses lies as a weapon against others, but the impact can clearly be devastating.

Delusion: Of course, sometimes people tell lies without really lying—because they believe every word they say! Everyone is capable of self-deception as this excerpt from Death Bringer, by Derek Landy, illustrates:

“The fact is that we have no way of knowing if the person who we think we are is at the core of our being. Are you a decent girl with the potential to someday become an evil monster, or are you an evil monster that thinks it’s a decent girl?”

“Wouldn’t I know which one I was?”

“Good God, no. The lies we tell other people are nothing to the lies we tell ourselves.”

We all believe our own lies to a certain degree, in fact we frequently convince ourselves that our version of things is the truth even in the face of contradictory evidence. For some people, however, delusion and self-deception become so extreme that they are literally living in a fantasy world.

Preference: And then there are those who find it easier and more fun to lie than to tell the truth. The more often they get way with lying, the more they lie. These sociopathic liars will lie for any and all of the reasons listed above, or for no reason at all, without a qualm or any sense of remorse.

The Impact of Lies

The problem with these more destructive forms of lying is that they wreak havoc on trust and relationships. When a person lies, especially someone who is close to us, they have broken a bond. If lies are serious or repetitive, it’s almost impossible for us to trust that person again. Of course the impact of malicious lies goes well beyond the destruction of trust, often ending careers and sometimes lives.

Even when a lie comes from a stranger or seems trivial, it destroys the “benefit of the doubt” that many people prefer to lead with. Let’s revisit the resume lie, for example: 51% of employers surveyed said they would dismiss outright someone who was discovered to have lied on their resume and 92% of those polled would not hire someone who lied on their resume.

Most people choose to lie for some kind of personal benefit. Evidence suggests that the cost far outweighs the payoff.


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[1] Feldman, R. S., Forrest, J. A., & Happ, B. R. (2002). Self-presentation and verbal deception: Do self-presenters lie more? Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 24, 163-170.

[3] Gail Saltz. Why people lie — and how to tell if they are http://www.today.com/health/why-people-lie-how-tell-if-they-are-2D80554952 

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