Why do people lie? Why do we all lie? That should conjure up some interesting conversations.

Let’s not pretend that we all don’t do it in one form or another to one extent or the other at one time or another when the right opportunity, or should we say situation, presents itself. It’s the lies that we tell for seemingly insignificant stupid reasons, but rest assured, there’s always some motivation behind it.

Don’t believe it? When was the last time someone asked you “what’s wrong”, knowing good and well there was, and you responded with “nothing”? The response written all over your face doesn’t match the words coming out of your mouth. 

Lying comes in many forms. A lie, the opposite of a truth, as we define it means different things to different people. Let’s add some clarity to it.

A distruth[sic] is where our perception is that we genuinely believe it to be true, but it is painfully obvious to all of those around us that it is not. Our perception and our reality are at opposite ends of the spectrum. It’s not really a lie because we genuinely believe it to be true.

A mistruth is where there is only just enough evidence of truth to lend credibility to it and to lead one to believe it is all true. Since we know and believe enough of it to be true, we believe the entire statement is true. This happens a lot to victims of phishing scams.

A failure to disclose anything that has an impact or influence on us is a lie by omission. It is a failure to correct any misconceptions our recipient has with anything we have told them. If we are asked “where have you been?” and our response is “I went to the store”, and we also stopped by an old girlfriend’s house on the way back, we weren’t exactly being forthright and honest in our response. We don’t get to argue “I didn’t lie” because “I really went to the store”. We knew what the spirit of the meaning of the question was.

And of course, we have the blatant lie. A blatant lie is deliberate, with malice, forethought, and intent. We have to want to lie. Yes, we may compulsively impulsively lie. But we have to make a conscious decision to do so. I’ll come back to that in a moment.

 

SOME VERY HIGH PROFILE LIARS

Elizabeth Holmes, with her piercing blue eyes, blonde hair, good looks and charming personality, managed to dupe so many people in very high ranking positions all over the world and became quite the celebrity as she launched Theranos becoming the youngest female self-made billionaire in history. The problem? It was all a fraud. She is currently awaiting trial.

The biggest college admissions scandal in history was orchestrated by William Singer, and caught up in the scam were well known celebrities like Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin. Singer accepted a plea bargain agreement in exchange for his testimony. Huffman accepted a plea bargain agreement and served two weeks in prison and a $15,000 fine. Loughlin is currently awaiting trial while 50 others are in different stages of their own criminal cases. The saddest part about the college admissions scandal? Some poor child wasn’t afforded the opportunity to be admitted to the college of their choice because some selfish liar(s) had to cheat the system to gain a competitive advantage.

Perhaps the biggest scam of all, the stuff movies are made out of, Catch Me if You Can, is about the true life events of Frank Abagnale. Abagnale was the ultimate con man. After Abagnale (Leonardo DiCaprio) began his fraudulent schemes starting with his father’s credit cards, he perfected his trade with bank fraud which drew the attention of federal agent Joseph Shea as characterized in the movie as Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks). He impersonated an airline pilot, a teaching assistant, a physician, an attorney, and other miscellaneous and sundry others, and he was so good at it, he managed to work his way into key roles and positions at each of them. It was so brazen, it was completely unbelievable that he could have pulled it off. Yet he did. Ultimately, Abagnale was captured, convicted, and sentenced. However, he received specialized treatment and was granted a release in exchange for helping federal authorities solve many fraudulent crimes that remained unsolved. Abagnale and Shea remained good friends up until Shea’s death. Abagnale is now a security consultant.

 

LYING HAS EVOLUTIONARY ROOTS

None of us should be surprised that we are all so very capable of deceiving one another. It’s almost as if it is embedded in our DNA. Animals use camouflage to deceive predators in the wild.

Deceitfulness is so easy for us, it is why identity theft has become such a prolific problem. It is so easy for us, we can easily create an image of us in the world on social media that is nothing like the real us; a practice largely utilized as scams and phishing expeditions.

We don’t even have to face them. We gaslight, orbit, and ghost them. Gaslighting is intended to convince you that you are crazy. Ghosting is cutting off communications altogether. Orbiting is ghosting with the exception of continuing to follow and like on social media which is tantamount to electronically stalking. 

Even animals engage in deceptive practices. It is only humans that are subject to deceiving themselves as well as others. People often do so to manage and control the perception of themselves when it differs from the reality of themselves.

In other words, people are so preoccupied with appearances, they’ll do anything, including lying, to protect themselves.

And why? Fear! Fear of being judged. Fear of being persecuted. Fear of being crucified. For anyone who has ever experienced this type of trauma, it takes a heavy toll on them.

In experiments conducted by Robert Feldman at the University of Massachusetts, even the test subjects were very surprised to learn that they themselves had fabricated information after watching a video of themselves doing so. Further studies determined that 60% of the respondents had lied at least once averaging almost 3 lies for every 10 minutes of conversation. That’s huge. They lied and didn’t even think twice about it. In fact, we don’t have to think about it at all. It just comes naturally and happens subconsciously to us.

It takes more cognitive brain functionality to perpetuate a lie than it does to simply tell the truth.  We have to be aware of the truth first before we can create a lie consistent with the facts to support the truth. It’s how we create plausible deniability.

Concurrently, we must be able to suppress the truth so we don’t respond inconsistently, or the whole lie collapses and becomes unraveled. We must pay close attention to their reaction so that we can accurately gage each of our responses and make adjustments accordingly that continue to support the narrative we’ve created. Our story has to flow.

In short, lying takes a lot of work, and really works the brain. It’s exhausting which is why when the truth finally comes out, the perpetrator of the lie is relieved leaving a traumatized victim in their wake. 

This all takes place in the prefrontal cortex; the part of the brain responsible for judgment, logic, reason, & rationale. fMRI scans revealed marked increases in blood flow in the prefrontal cortex indicating significant increases in activity when the test subjects were lying. It lit up like a Christmas Tree.

It takes more brain resources to lie than it does to tell the truth. The amygdala’s response to lying becomes weaker and weaker with each lie according to Tali Sharot at University College London. As such, lying itself tends to mimic addiction as if lying in and of itself is an addiction.

Because liars tend to utilize more resources, not just mentally, but physically, and also metaphorically as well, latency in our answers is problematic for us compared to our honest counterparts. That stands to reason considering more cognitive resources are used to perpetuate a lie. Lies are very choppy and do not flow very well while the truth always flows smoothly as it is fluid in nature. The truth is smoothe. 

Some facts about lying:

  • Men tend to lie more than women. They do so more so in an attempt to make themselves look better; perhaps to pursue the women they are lying to, court them, or more sinisterly, have sex with them.
  • Women are more apt to lie to comfort someone in need.
  • Extroverts lie more than introverts.
  • People are more willing to lie to people they know than they are perfect strangers. We always care and want to look good in front of others; especially the people we know, love, and care about.
  • People are more willing to lie if there is a significant difference in equality and fairness.
  • People are more ready, willing, and able to deceive and lie to someone as an immediate reactionary response than they are to a well thought out and planned response. They’re caught off guard, so for lack of anything better to say, they simply fabricate something. This is why the 24 Hour Rule was created. In theory, it’s a great idea. In practice, the truth needs to be settled before the end of the day.

 

WE WERE TRAINED TO LIE

Lying is such a very natural part of our being, we simply cannot help ourselves; at least at the subconscious level. The fact is, we never had a chance. We have been programmed throughout our life to respond with a lie. It first started with our parents; probably in our Pediatrician’s office when we got our first shots (Sorry Pediatricians. You were the first person I thought of)“ This isn’t going to hurt at all”. Well of course it is. 

Eventually, our child’s lies evolve and segregate into those that work and those that don’t “Well, crying doesn’t work for me anymore, so I’ll just start throwing a temper tantrum” Whatever garners the attention they seek, or as I commonly say “the squeaky wheel gets the oil”, that’s where they will ultimately gravitate to.

To some, psychologists suggest lying is a sign of cognitive growth that’s on track and normal. Yet lying has devastating and destructive consequences.

Studies by the University of Toronto have revealed that the older a child becomes, the likelihood they would lie grows dramatically. They will improve their propensity to lie to make it look like they are telling the truth by coupling and piggy backing it onto something else that is plausible. 

Studies reveal that toddlers who perform better on theory of mind evaluations have higher cognitive function than those who don’t. Teenagers who were very good liars also out performed those who weren’t. Children with autism are not very good at lying.

Theory of Mind is an ability to make a well reasoned and rational educated guess as to the thought process of another, and utilize that to patronize, control, & manipulate them. But it also hinges on things one party knows that the other does not. 

The correlation between mental health and lying is the subject of controversy amongst psychiatrists. While some people with psychiatric disorders have been proven to lie, narcissists lie to project themselves as something they are not while sociopaths lie to manipulate.

Research has revealed that liars have more neural path connections in their prefrontal cortex than those who don’t. This tends to support the idea that liars can rapidly think on their feet in much the same way a smart ass responds with a rhetorical response. They are quick thinkers. fMRI scans indicate tremendous increase in brain activity in the reward centers of the brain, the nucleus accumbens, according to Psychologists Nobuhito Abe at Kyoto University and Joshua Greene at Harvard University.

It takes a whole lot of training and practice to become a really good liar. Our children begin practicing deception before their very first birthday. They cry to get our attention. They smile and laugh in order to provoke a response from us. All of these things are deceitful, yet cute, but they are deceptive nonetheless. Children do this to manipulate their parents to get what they want.

I had a conversation recently with a mother who had trouble getting her child to go lay down and go to sleep. “The reason a child needs to be rocked to sleep is because you programmed the child to be rocked to sleep,” I said. Rocking the child was never about the child. It was always about the parent and soothing our need to comfort our child. We rocked the child to sleep for our own comfort; not theirs.`

If we think about it objectively, aren’t we all just as guilty as the next person of perpetuating a lie? How do we rationalize Santa Clause, flying reindeer, and visiting every house in a 24 hour period? Conceptually, it is ludicrous. It’s not physically possible. Yet we tell these stories to our children.

I recall the moment my daughter discovered the truth about the Tooth Fairy! I was so busted. My daughter had picked up my phone and saw the text message I had sent to my wife reminding her not to forget to put money under her pillow after she went to sleep. She said “So Dad, you’re the tooth fairy huh?” What do I say to that? I told her we would talk about it later. So we took the kids to dinner, and told all of them at the same time that their Mom & Dad were in fact the Tooth Fairy. And of course, the conversation evolved to Santa Claus, and we told them that we were in fact Santa Claus too.

The irony was, they had no problem with a little bunny hopping around delivering Easter Eggs though. We excused the little lie as something of a necessity because conceptually some things are just too complicated for a child to understand, so we tell stories to help them understand it. Of course, one could argue we didn’t ever have to have Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, or the Easter Bunny at all which is also true. But then we’d have to deal with the fallout and explanation of all of their friends and family having these imaginary characters stop by to visit them, and bring gifts. It’s not our place, nor our child’s, to be a spoiler alert for someone else’s, nor vice versa. Add to that all of the fiction and fairy tales, and it just gets rather messy. 

Lying starts very early for all of us. We start to become very proficient at it by the time we are teenagers with young adults having acquired the necessary skills to become the best liars. 

There is also proof that there is value in learning how to lie. Unless we’ve never experienced being lied to or deceived, we wouldn’t have any idea how to process it. We need to be able to cope with the overwhelming lying input we receive so much so often, on a regular basis so that we can respond to it accordingly whether that is to implement boundaries, or to take other necessary actions to protect and preserve our safety, security, and sanity. So there is merit in learning how to lie so that we don’t become overwhelmingly deceived and victimized by it. 

We set the standard.

  • “Dinner was great” when it wasn’t.
  • “You did good” when you didn’t.
  • “You look nice” when you don’t.

All these little white lies, we tell all the time just to be nice and spare someone’s feelings? What would happen if we were to be brutally honest and said “Dinner tasted awful”, “You weren’t very good at it” and as Drum Eatenton (Tom Skerritt) would say “You look like hammered shit”, in Steel Magnolias?

You know what happens when we do this? We have to sit through and “enjoy that very same meal again”, “watch as they fail because they weren’t very good”, and “look at that ugly outfit again”, and why? All because we couldn’t be honest about it.

This very scenario played out in an episode of the Andy Griffith Show (Season 2, Episode 11), “No one will admit to Aunt Bee’s homemade pickles being the worst they’ve ever tasted. Andy switches them with store-bought ones to avoid eating hers, but her decision to enter them in the county fair presents a dilemma.“1 

We use “air quotes” as if that somehow makes what we say more plausible and believable. Or we do “pinky swears”, or cross our fingers, or other such foolishness. If we have the wherewithal to cross our fingers, and tell a lie anyway, it begs the question as to why we cross our fingers? It’s a level of absurdity that baffles the mind.

CREATING & PERPETUATING A LIE

In order to facilitate a lie, it takes a web of lies and deceit to cover it all up. Then for each of the lies and deceit in the web, it takes a web of lies and deceit to cover those up. A lie is a snowflake that starts at the peak, rolls down the mountain gaining mass and momentum until what started out as a snowflake turned into a snowball, and eventually became an avalanche that destroyed everything in its path.

Some lies are just excuses for our shortcomings while others are to blame someone else for them, and yet others still are to present to others we are someone we are not. Most of us have told at least one or more “serious lies” such as hiding an affair according to Bella DePaulo, a social psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. 

We want so desperately for others to perceive us positively, we’ll do anything to protect that image and perception; including lying. Other people’s opinion of us is so important to us, yet their opinion of us is none of our business. 

The excuses and motivations are many:

  • Any of the seven deadly sins (lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, or pride)
  • To protect them, to keep from hurting them, from the painful truth
  • To bail us out of a bad situation and circumvent the consequences of being held accountable
  • To spare someone’s feelings, remain polite, & tactful
  • To excuse ourselves, escape, and avoid people we don’t want to deal with
  • To perpetuate and engage in a fraud, embezzlement, &  financial gain
  • To protect our confidentiality, privacy, & secrets
  • To protect someone’s honor, dignity, & respect
  • To maintain our personal safety, self-preservation, and self-protection
  • To receive praise, recognition, & reward
  • To gain admiration, glory, & heroism
  • To boast, brag, & delusions of grandeur
  • To have power, authority, & control over another person
  • To avoid embarrassment, guilt, & shame
  • To tell a story, fable, or fairy tale
  • To circumvent being judged, persecuted, and crucified
  • To achieve preferential treatment, promotion, & professional gain
  • To exploit, extort, & receive sexual favors
  • To avoid controversy, confrontation, and awkwardness with those we disagree with
  • To cover up for our laziness, incompetence, and insubordination
  • To trick, fool, & entertain others
  • To gain a competitive advantage over our competitors. We cheat because we’ve determined that the righteous path won’t, or may not, achieve our goal.
  • Because honesty just isn’t working very well to meet our perceived needs
  • Security Clearance, National Security, & lying to protect our country for which we have sworn an oath (even then, we still don’t have to lie about it. We can simply respond with “I’m not at liberty to say”, and leave it at that.)

 

REBUILDING TRUST

We want to be perceived by others as being honest because society has dictated that integrity is something we should value. Interestingly, we all have limits as to the extent at which we are willing to lie; unless we are a sociopath.

We will easily justify that insignificant item we took from the the bank, yet wouldn’t dare rob it. Why do you think they chain their ink pens to the counter instead of just having pens lying around?

Polygraphs detect a lie only slightly better than a roll of the dice. These tests are often inconclusive, and quite often just blatantly wrong. There are specific questioning techniques- techniques where only the test subject would know if a particular question and answer applies to them- that could improve the test, but the test results will never be 100% accurate, which is why they are not admissible in a court of law and are the subject of daytime talk shows for entertainment purposes.

Being systematically conditioned, programmed, & brain washed throughout our life to lie also has created an innate vulnerability. We all are lying, yet we genuinely expect everyone else to tell the truth.

  • We all want to hear what we want to hear.
  • We see what we want to see.
  • We all read what we want to read, and ignore what we don’t believe.
  • We weigh the facts against what we already know, or perceive to know, to be true, and assess the legitimacy of it.
  • If a material fact doesn’t fit, we summarily dismiss it as an anomaly that doesn’t fit, and we simply set it aside and ignore it.

This is called “confirmation bias.”

It’s people whose motives are unclear to us that tricks us the most because we want to believe “what reason would they have to lie to us”? Just because we don’t know the motive is no reason to believe there isn’t one. Studies have indicated that the harder and more convincing evidence we provide to the contrary, the more resistance we’ll receive.

People don’t like to be told they are wrong. People will always lean heavily toward that which is more familiar to them until the evidence is so overwhelming, they have little rational choice anymore.

It’s most ironic that we have such a hard time determining a lie as it is being so good at perpetuating one. It’s also ironic that we feel the need to trust others, yet we don’t necessarily hold ourselves to the same standard.

Lying is something we’re all very good at; some of us better than others. It is embedded within us, so much so, it defines all of us. Most of our lies are trivial and insignificant, and are used to hide our shortcomings, or spare others of the painful reminder of theirs. 

It’s as difficult to hide a lie from the trained observer in as much as it is to perpetuate one by the untrained liar. The latency, time to respond, reveals flaws in that the subconscious mind exhibits a provoked response before the conscious mind has a chance to catch up. It is during that finite amount of time that the body language reveals an inconsistency between the words that come out of our mouth and the facial expressions we exhibit.

This is called a single micro expression. It doesn’t offer conclusive proof of lying, but where conclusive proof isn’t necessary, it adds to the many other WARNING SIGNS we have already been seeing. It is a great tool utilized by professionals trained at spotting these intricate details.

Interestingly, when we tell the truth, trust is a linear progression. When we tell a lie, it’s an exponential digression. In other words, the lies will deteriorate our trustworthiness at an alarming rate compared to that of building it.

Also worth noting, as long as we never give someone sufficient reason to distrust us in the first place, building that trust is monumentally easy whereas trying to rebuild it is like trying to climb Mount Everest with a whole team of people trying to pull us back down the mountain, and their donkeys too.

Lying has become such an integral part of our lives, we’re subject to believe them even when there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Social media exacerbates the problem. Our ability to separate fact from fiction has become severely compromised. 

 

WHICH BRINGS US TO WHERE WE ARE NOW

It all starts with who we are lying to. The #1 person we’re deceitful with is our Partner in a committed relationship. Of all the people in the world whose trust we cherish the most, why would we do that? We also lie to our children, parents, siblings, friends, family, colleagues, & acquaintances. You know who we lie to the least? People we don’t even know or care about.

“Any time we make a decision, and that decision has the propensity to impact or influence another person, we have a duty, obligation, and responsibility to share in that decision with them.”

One reason that we lie is that it’s a gamble. It’s a roll of the dice. If we tell the truth, we know there will be consequences. If we tell a lie, we know there will be consequences, but only if we get caught in our lie.

This is called deontic reasoning. It’s worth the gamble to us because neither the truth, nor the lie, will result in a good outcome. It’s the difference between “If I tell the truth, she will divorce me” versus “If I tell her a lie, and she finds out the truth, she will divorce me”. Neither case is one that the perpetrator of the lie wants, nor cares to endure. So they roll the dice and gamble on it.

Roll the dice enough times, we’ll run out of anything to gamble on anymore.

So to answer the original question “Why do we lie?”

Because we were evolutionarily predisposed to do it, we were programmed and trained to do it, and it’s oftentimes seen as the only option we have available to us when it never was.

 

  1. Courtesy IMDB.