Liar, Liar: We All Lie, but Why?
Lying is in our nature, and it’s socially acceptable
During a recent episode of Jimmy Kimmel Live!, a surrogate for the host hit the streets to ask people how they voted on President Donald Trump’s impeachment that day. “Um, I voted to impeach,” said one man, looking sincere and thoughtful. Next, he was asked how the lines were at his polling place. “Um, they were actually not as long as I thought they would be, unfortunately,” he said. Another man, who said he voted against the impeachment, said his polling place was “pretty packed.”
How could their voting experiences have been so different? Well, for starters, there was no public vote, of course. So why did these people lie blatantly, on camera, about something they did not do, and could not possibly have done?
“We don’t like to sound stupid,” says Kim Serota, PhD, a professor of marketing at Oakland University in Michigan. “We lie on dating apps and resumes to pump ourselves up and impress others. If we don’t know the answer to a question, we make one up. That is one of the more common reasons that people lie.”
“Lies occur between those we love and trust as much as they do with those we dislike, and even happens among complete strangers.”
But like all human behavior, lying exists on a spectrum, from sometimes harmless “white lies” to egregious and highly consequential fabrications told to gain money or power. Psychologists don’t all agree on exactly how common lying is, but research suggests that while most people may rarely lie in ways that are intentionally hurtful, pretty much everyone is untruthful, at least in small ways, quite often. Experts do agree that lying is part of human nature and that it’s sanctioned and even encouraged by society.
What’s in a lie
A lie is “a deliberate choice to mislead,” says Paul Ekman, PhD, a psychologist, author, and professor emeritus at the University of California, San Francisco. Ekman’s research finds that virtually no one is beyond lying or being lied to. “Most (if not all) human relationships involve some form of deceit or at least the possibility of it,” Ekman contends. “Lies occur between those we love and trust as much as they do with those we dislike, and even happens among complete strangers.”
Ekman draws a clear line between lying, which involves intent to deceive, and simply making false statements rooted in bad memory, misinterpretation, or individual belief without intent to deceive. He sees two main types of lies:
Concealing: Someone asks how your day was, and you shrug it off and fail to mention you were fired.
Falsifying: Someone asks how your day was, and you say you were promoted when you were actually fired.
Simple enough. But like a tangled web, lying gets much more complex when psychologists parse the underlying motivations.
“People lie for a lot of reasons, most of which are not intentionally hurtful,” Serota says. “People lie to avoid others, to protect others’ feelings, to protect themselves, to promote themselves, or for some personal gain (and sometimes for the benefit of others).”
“Sometimes they do it to be funny, to get a laugh and participate in humorous banter,” he continues. “Least often they do it to be mean or hurtful. Sometimes they don’t even know why they do it.”
How often we lie
In one study, detailed last year in the journal Psychiatric Quarterly, 18% of college students claimed they lie daily. These individuals were more likely to report lower self-esteem, lower quality of life, and lower GPAs, compared to students who said they lied less often.
In a survey of 1,000 adults that Serota conducted in 2010, 60% said they told no lies on a given day.
“On average, younger people tell more lies than older people,” he says. “And men tell more lies than women.” Meanwhile, nearly half the lies that were reported were told by 5% of the people.
A narrower subset of this group, which Serota and his colleague Timothy Levine call “prolific liars,” admit to telling more than two lies a day.
Yet another survey, reported in December 2019 in the journal PLOS One, supports Serota’s contention, even if the stats are notably different. About 40% of lies are told by a small number of deceivers who are very good at it, the researchers conclude. “And these people will lie with impunity to those closest to them,” says study leader Brianna Verigin, PhD, a researcher at the University of Portsmouth in England.
“Prolific liars rely a great deal on being good with words, weaving their lies into truths, so it becomes hard for others to distinguish the difference, and they’re also better than most at hiding lies within apparently simple, clear stories which are harder for others to doubt,” she says.
In descending order, the most common types of lies told, according to Verigin’s survey of 194 people are:
- White lies
- Hiding information
- Burying lies amid truths so it’s hard to distinguish one from the other
- Making things up
Men are particularly good at deception. Or at least they say they are. “Men were more than twice as likely to consider themselves expert liars who got away with it,” Verigin says.
However, Serota says that many other studies show people do not, in fact, have a good sense of whether they’re good liars. “There is almost no relationship between actual ability and perceived ability to lie,” he says.
Why we lie
We are all complicit in little white lies, says Michael Lewis, PhD, distinguished professor of pediatrics at Rutgers University and director of the Institute for the Study of Child Development at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. And based on his definition of lying, we all lie a lot. “Lying is a really central human activity. It involves us all in our relationships,” Lewis says. “It’s likely to be on a continuous basis throughout the day.” And we learn early on. “Children are capable of lying certainly by two or two and a half of age,” he says.
It boils down to etiquette. Culturally accepted rules of engagement encourage lying. “We lie to protect the feelings of others,” Lewis says. “We’re taught to be polite, thank people for gifts even if we think they’re awful.” And nearly everyone (ethicists aside) agrees these kinds of lies are acceptable, he argues. “We don’t want it all to hang out.”
Lewis gives the example of exchanging pleasantries: “How are you?” “I’m great, thanks.” Which, of course, is often untruthful, but you’ve rightly guessed the other person may not want to hear about your hemorrhoids or the lousy sex you had last night. But etiquette can also force people to lie knowingly, yet against their will. A U.S. senator will refer to another as “my esteemed colleague,” rather than “that lying sonofabitch,” Lewis points out.
If you buy this idea that lying is acceptable and common, then Lewis suggests you learn to do it well. Let’s say your partner gets a haircut and asks how they look. “If you’re going to lie, which I think you should, you’re going to say it looks great,” he reasons, leaning on the idea that people close to us don’t always want to hear the truth of your criticisms. “And you’re always going to have to say it looks great.” You can’t change your tune later on. “There’s a moral obligation to do it well if it’s done to protect another person,” he says.
Lying for self-protection, on the other hand, might seem wrong to many people. Until they’re asked to reflect a bit. Say you’re in some strict society and you’re starving. You pick an apple off the ground of another person’s orchard, and the owner catches you. The punishment is to cut off a hand. Lewis often asks his university students for a show of hands to see how many would tell the truth if put on trial for such an offense, and few hands go up.
Lies, damn lies, and pathological lies
“Lying is always a problem,” Serota says. “But little lies are little problems while big lies are a sign of big problems.” The tricky part is figuring out where the line is. “If you lie and can’t recover from the effects of your lie, you are probably over the line.”
One important point experts agree on: Most lying involves intent and awareness. We intend to protect someone, protect ourselves, or perhaps even profit from a lie, and we know we’re doing it. Even prolific liars are thought to have clear motives, however dubious or grossly beyond social norms. “Usually people are aware if they are being deceptive,” Serota says. “Most deception scholars agree that everyday lies are motivated, done with intent. Lying without intent may be part of a larger pathology.”
Scientists struggle to get inside the heads of pathological liars, but they are thought to lie routinely without any end game.
“Pathological liars can’t always tell truth from falsehood and contradict themselves in an interview,” University of Pennsylvania psychologist and criminologist Adrian Raine explained as part of a 2005 study in which interviews revealed, among the most blatant liars, glaring inconsistencies in their life stories. “They are manipulative, and [in our study] they admit they prey on people. They are very brazen in terms of their manner.”
Prolific liars rely a great deal on being good with words, weaving their lies into truths so it becomes hard for others to distinguish the difference.
Reflecting on that study and everything he’s learned since, Raine now says, “It’s not always the case that a pathological liar will be predatory. It’s just that pathological lying and deception are symptoms of a psychopathic personality, and our 2005 study was conducted in that context.”
Raine also spent four years working with offenders in prisons, providing yet a further nuanced view. “I got the sense that some of them were ‘truth-blind,’” he tells me. “Their lives were so confused and messy that to some extent they had lost track of what had and had not happened — what was truth and what was fiction. They may get classified as ‘pathological’ liars, but they may not have the intention to deceive.”
But there’s very little research on pathological lying, and psychiatrists have yet to agree on any firm definition. There’s no entry for the condition in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5).
Lying to appear honest
Among the more bizarre excuses for lying is trying to make people think you’re honest. That’s exactly what people did in a study detailed in a new research paper published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.
In one experiment, U.S. adults were asked to imagine a situation in which they drove 400 miles in a month for a company that had a compensation limit of 400 miles. On average, they said they’d report 384 miles, with 12% of them choosing to lie. In another experiment, 24% of college students underreported their winnings in a game that was, unbeknownst to them, rigged to get them a perfect score.
“We’ve shown that the more concerned you are that others might think you’re lying, the more likely you are to underreport your outcome,” says study leader Shoham Choshen-Hillel, PhD, who studies behavioral decision-making at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “I lie to make sure I don’t appear as a liar to you.”
Whatever your reasons for lying, as long as you don’t mean to hurt someone, social science seems squarely on your side. “If we were all bluntly honest all of the time,” Raine says, “life would be miserable.”