Why People Lie Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Why People Lie

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The dog ate my homework.
That dress really looks good on you.

Lies. We hear them everywhere. Be it from the mouth of a politician glossing over the facts or a desperate student trying to cover up for his night of hedonism and disregard for homework, lies are being told all over the place by just about everybody you can name.

What Is a Lie?

A lie is an untruth, a deviation, big or small, from what is known to be real. It is a false statement deliberately presented as being true, thus misrepresenting a situation or giving a totally wrong impression about something.

There are generally two types of lies - white lies, which do little or no damage, and black lies, which can be detrimental to the deceiver or the deceived when the truth is found out.

The People who Lie

Everybody lies. Admit it - you do as well. There is probably not a single person who has ever lived who has not once in his life told a falsehood or misrepresented the truth, regardless of whether it was unintentional or if he told it so that someone else's feelings would not be hurt - or if he did it for more sinister reasons.

According to Dr John J Busak, Professor of Psychiatry and Director of the Neuropsychiatry Centre at the University of New Delhi, the pathology of lying is not as simple as it may seem. Investigations have shown that there are those who are genetically predisposed towards lying and deceit. Studies of twins and extended families have suggested that these genetic components are transmitted vertically. Biological conditions such as learning disabilities and certain forms of non-specific cerebral dysfunction have also been associated with pathological lying.

But biology is not the only factor behind lying. The environmental factor in childhood also plays an important role in determining whether or not a person grows up to be a chronic liar. Those who come from chaotic and dysfunctional families have a greater tendency to lie than those who grew up in a caring household. Busak hypothesises that children from such families lie to change or modify reality so as to make life more tolerable - that in this case, lying becomes a strategy of coping with the hostile environment.

Discipline also seems to play a role in encouraging or discouraging lying. Severe punishment for misdemeanours paradoxically encourage deception, as the child realises a need to get out of punishment by any means possible. Inconsistent punishments for lying or the total absence of punishment will also encourage the child to lie. And punishing a child for lying and then getting caught lying yourself will do nothing to help the situation.

Interestingly, it is not only humans who lie - if 'lying' is synonymous with presenting anything other than the truth, be it intentional or unintentional. In fact, lying seems to be something every living creature in this world is familiar with. The bee orchid, for instance, with its bee-like colouring and pattern, lures bees to mate with it, thus propagating its seed to other bee orchids. The angler fish lies at the bottom of the sea, luring prey to it with curious (and probably delicious-looking) protrusions hanging from its head. Butterflies during the Industrial Revolution evolved to become soot-coloured so that they would blend in nicely with their sooty surroundings, thus escaping the jaws of predators. Stick insects do likewise, by appearing to be twigs.

Of course, for the sake of remaining faithful to this topic1, we will stick to deliberate lies told by people in a multitude of situations, and leave the animals alone.

Types of Lies, and Why People Tell Them

'That dress looks good on you'

According to Virginia Woolf, the pursuit of truth without consideration for other's feelings is an 'outrage of human decency'. Likewise, Ms Sullivan argues that 'Without the lie, the greased wheels of ordinary social discourse would grind to a halt'.

It is supposed that most of us would justify the telling of this sort of lie as 'being diplomatic'. Many of us have told untruths when asked for an opinion, when we believe in one thing but know that the person wishes to hear the other. We teach our kids to say, 'Thank you for the gift. I liked it very much' even when they don't, for the sake of being polite and not offending anybody. We say that we like a good friend's new hairstyle even though it is obvious that the coiffeur has made her look like Marge Simpson. These are things we usually find ourselves doing for the sake of maintaining a good relationship with people, consoling ourselves by saying that 'Surely it's not wrong as long as it doesn't hurt the person'.

In any event, a person who has asked you for your 'honest opinion' usually wants to hear anything but your honest opinion. Most people say, 'Tell me the truth' because they want assurance or confirmation of their belief that something is good for them, even if it is not. Although many would argue that telling these people what they want to hear is wrong and that it would probably wind up doing the person harm, the fact remains that very few of us would actually dare voice our real opinions, for fear of damaging our relationship with the person.

'I Didn't Do It!'

This is probably one of the most common lies. Students who neglect to do their homework tell it to avoid getting punished ('The computer ate my homework'). People who have accidentally written off an expensive piece of equipment may resort to lying to avoid getting the blame ('I don't know. It just stopped functioning'.). People of power lie to get themselves out of sticky situations that might damage their career, as did Representative Gary A Condit, Democrat of California, who lied about his affair with Chandra Ann Levy.

This is usually a case of evading responsibility. A person does something he knows to be wrong. He may not be able to come to terms with what he has done, or is afraid of being blamed or condemned for it. So he tells a lie to get out of the situation, often transferring the burden of the blame to a scapegoat - chance, a colleague, the dog.

There is a variation to this type of lie - 'What do you mean, I'm losing my hair???' We live our lives by parameters we set for ourselves. Sometimes, things just don't turn out the way they're meant to, sometimes people point out things that we were not previously aware of, things that we never expected would happen to us. Death is one example, excessive weight is another. When that happens, the shock that hits us is sometimes too great for us to accept, thus triggering the denial reaction. Denial is a form of lying - to ourselves, because of our inability to accept the sudden change to our lives.

'He Was with Me the Whole Night'

We sometimes find ourselves in a situation where we are forced to lie for the sake of protecting somebody - say, a best friend. This may include telling a fib to corroborate the person's story ('Yes, she went to the cinema with me'), or, for a nobler cause, taking responsibility for something you did not do just so that the other person does not get punished. The latter is a little hard to explain, but it's in the name of altruism. Say somebody in your lab broke a piece of equipment - a glass pipette, for instance - but did not own up. Your project leader is furious because the culprit doesn't have the decency to come forward. Rather than have everybody's position jeopardised because the boss thinks your lot untrustworthy, you step forward and say, 'I did it'. You will inevitably get some flak from the boss for being sloppy, but at least you have shown him that there is honesty amongst you (ironic, isn't it, lying so that you'll be called honest) and you have let everybody else off the hook.

There are also times when we also have to tell lies to protect the innocent. If a child whose mother has died asks where her mummy has gone, the answer is not usually, 'She's dead', but 'She had to go somewhere very far away'. Some people also lie to keep their children from knowing they have been adopted. This is not a case of downright lying, but of a need to protect people who do not yet understand the truth - until one day when that person is old enough to know it.

'If You Don't Go to Sleep Right Now, the Bogeyman Will Come and Get You!'

There are two kinds of threats - those that people hold true to their word, and those that people make just to instil fear in others so that they'll do whatever these people want. A typical example is the lie told by exasperated parents to their children who have a tendency to make faces: 'One of these days the wind is going to get you when you make a face, and you'll be stuck with it for the rest of your life!' Go through your old Enid Blyton books. They are riddled with threats like these. Who among us has not spent our childhood fears living in terror of ending up like that boy who was cheeky to an elf and wound up being cursed with huge cheeks? So much for childhood innocence.

'That Sucker Was Eight Feet Long!'

Exaggeration. How many of us are guilty of this? Most of us have told or heard the story about the fish that got away that was 'two metres long' (it was actually closer to a foot), or that the old friend you met at the supermarket 'looked like a blimp'. In some cases, these lies are told to impress the listener. More often, they are told in order to inject drama into an otherwise boring story.

'Did I Ever Tell you that I Used to Be in Professional Skiing?'

A study carried out by psychologist Robert Feldman revealed that most people lied in everyday conversation to appear more competent and more likable to people they are trying to impress. He found that 60% of people lied at least once during a ten-minute conversation and told an average of two to three lies.

People often lie about things trying to feel better about themselves.
- Charles Ford, Psychiatry professor at the University of Alabama School of Medicine and author of Lies! Lies! Lies! - The Psychology of Deceit

We are all human. Deep inside, we all have a longing to be liked, to be accepted by a certain clique. We want people to look up to us, to respect us, to treat us as equals or better. At the same time, many of us, from brutal years of childhood, have acquired a certain sense of inadequacy - a feeling that we are just not good enough to measure up to people's expectations. We feel that our lives are in severe need of excitement and glamour, that we are the most boring people on earth. So what do we do when we meet somebody whom we wish to impress, or are desperately seeking approval from? We lie.

It is easy to understand why we, the mediocre folks who live boringly routine lives or have survived the torments of the past, would lie about ourselves, but why would already-famous people lie? The historian Joseph J Ellis lied about his heroic service in Vietnam. Pop artist Andy Warhol used to make up different stories about his origins. The wealthy Democratic Party donor Larry Lawrence2 lied about serving in the Merchant Marines during the Second World War, and also fabricated a story of how he struggled in icy waters after his ship was torpedoed.

The answer is self-aggrandisement. And - in the case of those who make up stories of personal tragedies (in the case of both celebrities and non-celebrities) - to gain sympathy. If you were somebody seeking an important position, or trying to impress people with your incredible abilities, wouldn't you get more admiration from those people if you were to throw in a tragic tale of how you'd spent six weeks trapped in the Himalayas with nothing more than a pick-axe and a box of matches, but managed to build yourself a camp and send a distress signal anyway3?

Of course, many of these are boastful lies, fibs that are told in the locker room to a bunch of admiring comrades or team members, lies meant to be restricted to a small circle of 'confidants'. But sometimes, word gets out; the tale is spread, blown up out of proportion, and does serious damage. By that time, the lie will have snowballed too far for the liar to do anything about it, except maybe own up.

Of course, it would not do if somebody found you out. Hopes for promotion sunk like a deadweight for Judge James Ware of the US District Court in San Jose when he admitted that he'd made up the story of his brother being shot dead by white racists as he watched.

'I'm 25, Blonde, and Athletic...'

You log onto the Internet, and visit one of the millions of chat sites. When prompted to enter your details, you type, '16, male, gorgeous brunette' even though you are 45, have five strands of hair, and would not be attractive even to severely myopic beetles. Why?

The Internet is one of our newest forms of communication, only having been developed at the end of the 20th Century, but it is fast becoming the most popular and most dependable. It is because of the Internet that the world has now become smaller, and the barriers of communication are all but gone. A letter to a friend living in Canada now takes five minutes to get there when it once took five weeks.

Because the Internet is an electronic media, it also means a certain removal of your identity from reality. Nobody is going to know whether or not you are telling the truth about yourself or your job - in fact, nobody seems to be telling the truth about themselves anymore.

So why do we lie to a stranger we have met on the Internet? There are some who do it for security reasons. You wouldn't want to tell someone your real name and address only to wind up with a stalker after you. You wouldn't want your personal information to be exploited, or spread to others for commercial reasons. You wouldn't want anybody to intrude on your peaceful, quiet life.

However, the Internet is also a wonderful playground for the human imagination. People who had stopped role-playing and making fairy tales in their childhood suddenly find the avenue to do so again on the Internet. You could be anybody at all, anybody you ever wanted to be - and better still, there is no one to question you about what you are doing. There is a certain sense of freedom in living your dreams where there is nobody to be critical about them.

'Yes, I've Done C++ Before'

Lies misrepresenting a person's aptitude and image aren't told only in social settings. In many cases, people have lied, or misrepresented themselves, for professional or political reasons. A person applying for a job may claim proficiency in a certain field he's obviously not very good in because the job requirements state it as a prerequisite. Another such person may similarly claim expertise in a particular area for the sake of impressing his boss, or in hope of promotion. This is called lying to gain an advantage over other people. And it seriously does not bode well for the person if he gets caught.

'I Did It'

Plagiarism. A serious offence committed by desperate students who have to hand in a paper by the next morning, but have neither the time nor the imagination to compose their own thoughts or ideas. This is seriously damaging, whether or not the person gets caught. A student who gets away with it is encouraged by his own audacity to try the trick again. And again. Until he gets caught. This dependence on somebody else's work hampers his own creativity, and suppresses his ability to think for himself - something that is not going to get him anywhere in the long run. It is also damaging to those who are honest enough to do their own research, but get poorer grades than those who cheated, thus causing them to think that there is little use in pouring so much effort into their assignment. And if the cheat gets caught - well, let's just say that it's usually a case of copyright infringement. At the very least, the student gets suspended - or expelled.

'This Product Has Been Proven to Be Effective'

Cases of fraud and misrepresentation of facts have been on the rise. The Seattle Times reported that of the 426,000 people in Washington who were receiving unemployment benefits last year, 6,000 were cheating. Empire Blue Cross referred 812 fraud cases against them for criminal prosecution in 2000. Various new holistic medical practices, often with no evidence to substantiate their claims, are declaring that their health products can cure illnesses from the common cold to AIDS.

We find fraud wherever we go, be it cheating on taxes, fraudulent billing claims by health operators, health fraud scams and diet schemes. The motives may differ. There are those who are aware that they are deliberately misrepresenting the truth, but continue to do so anyway for the sake of business and money, as in the case of employees of Bay Ship Management, Inc. (BSM), who in 1994 were demanding kickbacks and fraudulently inflating contracts for certain subcontractors. And then there are those who strongly believe that the schemes they are purveying actually do work, as in the case of homeopathy practitioners - in which case, they are lying to themselves because they refuse to accept the evidence against them. The last - and most tragic - group comprises those who are forced to commit fraud because they cannot see another way out of their current situation, for example research students who have poured blood, sweat and tears into their work but have obtained no useful results, and for fear of failing, falsify their records4.

'Yeah, I'll Get to Work on it Right Away'

False promises are those that people make and then do not follow through. A typical example might be, 'No problem - I'll just make a few calls to the companies; you'll get the stuff in no time' (even when you know that you'll be busy for the rest of the week, and will never get around to making those calls). Of course these are lies that will eventually be found out - usually to your detriment, because your acquaintance/friend may decide never to trust you again.

Of course, there are cases where false promises have worked to a person's advantage, to the detriment of the other party. Hitler was one example - he'd promised British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in 1938 that he wouldn't invade Czechoslovakia if the Czechs would consider redrawing their border with Germany. He didn't exactly hold up his end of the deal, did he?

'We can protect you' etc

A dangerous form of lying involves deliberate deception intended to gather support for a particular organisation or group, to obtain information about the opposition or to manipulate the outcome of a situation. This includes the manipulation of information or data interpretation so as to sway the target population, or defamation of the opposing party with falsified evidence or claims.

In military operations, fabrication of information is a tactic employed regularly to throw the enemy off course or to force the enemy's hand. Soldiers on duty at an outpost may be required to lie about their numbers when reporting so as to misinform eavesdropping enemies. Military tactics sometimes call for the planting of false information for enemies to retrieve and misinterpret - 'leaked' information about their next target, for instance. And some of these strategies are used ruthlessly in espionage, especially when moles are planted within hostile organisations, pretending to be allies under faked identities while siphoning information from the members.

In some cases, the motive is not to rally for support, but simply to defame somebody by spreading false, malicious rumours about them. This was so in the case of Australian Medical Association (AMA) Federal Health Minister, Dr Michael Wooldridge, who defamed the AMA president, Dr Kerryn Phelps, by saying that she had 'no specialist qualification other than in the media'.

Compulsive lying

The last form of deception to be discussed here is compulsive lying. In most situations, we lie for one reason or another. It may be to get out of trouble, to gain an unfair advantage over somebody, to earn respect from others. Whatever the reason, good or bad, it can be justified.

But what about compulsive lying? There are those who are compulsive liars, who are compelled to tell lies even when it would do them no good, or when the truth would serve them better. These are people who say they'd bought a certain item from Shop X when in fact they'd obtained them from Shop Y; people who would say that they had been to a certain place even when they have not. How does it profit these people to lie?

Paul Ekman, a psychiatry professor from the University of California, San Francisco, attributes this to 'duping delight'. People who tell such lies do so not to get out of trouble, but for fun. For them, lying is like a drug that provides an adrenalin surge or a 'kick' sensation, and the feeling of being able to control the person they are lying to.

However, there are individuals who seem to lie automatically without the intention to deceive. Jerald Jellison, a psychology professor at the University of Southern California, suggests that this may be due to momentum. A person who gets away with his first lie may be carried by the momentum of how easy it is to slip a lie past people. The second time around, it gets easier to repeat the lie with embellishments. The more you get away with it, the more you lie. And before you know it, lying has become second nature.

Why People Lie - a Summary

We have already covered different types of lies and on what occasions people tell them. But here is the question - what makes people lie?

  • Greed - for power, for advantage, for money, for admiration

  • Fear - we are sometimes driven to lie by fear - usually of what will happen if we tell the truth

  • Acceptance - no man is an island. We find ourselves doing whatever it takes to be accepted, to be liked and appreciated

  • Habit - compulsive liars lie compulsively because they are used to it

When Is a Lie not a Lie?

All of us have said, in jest, things that are wildly inaccurate or untrue for the sake of getting a laugh or two. Do these jokes constitute lying?

De Mendacio, who wrote Retractions in around 395 AD before he was made a Bishop, differentiates between the telling of what is false and lying. A person who tells a false thing but believes or opines it to be true does not lie, but commits an 'erring':

For this he owes to the faith of his utterance, that he thereby produce that which he holds in his mind, and has in that way in which he produces it. Not that he is without fault, although he lie not, if either he believes what he ought not to believe, or thinks he knows what he knows not, even though it should be true: for he accounts an unknown thing for a known.

Also, in defence of good-natured jests:

Jokes... have never been accounted lies, seeing they bear with them in the tone of voice, and in the very mood of the joker a most evident indication that he means no deceit, although the thing he utters be not true.

On the other hand, a person who believes in one thing but says another is a confirmed liar:

Wherefore, that man lies, who has one thing in his mind and utters another in words, or by signs of whatever kind. Whence also the heart of him who lies is said to be double; that is, there is a double thought: the one, of that thing which he either knows or thinks to be true and does not produce; the other, of that thing which he produces instead thereof, knowing or thinking it to be false.

The Hazards of Lying

When everything depends on just one tiny lie, we forget that in order to correct one lie, seven others have to be told.
- Shevat Yehudah

It is all too well if someone manages to get away with a little lie or deception. But what's in it for him if he gets caught? Or - if the lie is an especially big one - what will it do to others?

The immediate answer is: people would lose faith in him. He has betrayed their trust - how will he ever regain it? This is especially bad if he belongs to a large organisation or movement of some sort, because that little act will now have insinuated to the people that the person is untrustworthy, ergo his organisation is not to be trusted either - who knows how many deceitful people are in it? It may even cost the person his career, his reputation, his future. Damage like this is irrevocable.

And what of those that have been deceived? Jolly good for those who see through the lie. However, countless others will fall for it, hook, line and sinker. This is not necessarily because they are unable to think for themselves, but because they may feel that there should not be a need to question the person's integrity, especially if he is a person of power. Status can sway the people. And in some cases, when the liar is exposed, it is not he who the people are angry with - it is the person who exposed him. This frequently happens to BG Burkett, a Dallas stockbroker and Vietnam veteran who exposes phoney war stories. Many feel that he has deprived them of a good story and a hero - and has cast a shadow of doubt over other people's war exploits.

In extreme situations, lies can also create turmoil, political upheaval, even war as people of one country are turned against the people of another because wildly inaccurate information has been propagated and their feelings have been stirred.

The most tragic hazard of lying, however, is that too often a person who repeatedly tells a certain lie will end up believing it himself. It may start out as an attempt to impress or to get sympathy, but as the lying goes on, the person himself may lose track of reality, until at the end he can no longer differentiate between reality and the fiction he has created.

What Religion Says about Lying

You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned. (Christianity) Matthew 12.34-37, New Testament

All religions and religious teachings are dead against lying. Some say it more subtly, implying that lying is wrong and will lead to misery and downfall, and so you shouldn't do it:

Dishonesty in business or the uttering of lies causes inner sorrow.
- (Sikhism) Adi Granth, Maru Solahe, M3, p 1062
I do not see what use a man can be put to, whose word cannot be trusted. How can a wagon be made to go if it has no yoke-bar, or a carriage if it has no collar-bar?
- (Confucianism) Analects 2.22

Others are downright intolerant, condemning liars to fire-and-brimstone, pointing out that lying is a big, big, unforgivable sin, and terrible punishment awaits the sinner:

But the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death'
- (Christianity) Revelations 21:8, The New Testament

Of course, many of these religious teachings suggest that there is a way out of this eternal misery. They divide lies into two types -forgivable sins and unforgivable sins. The former are those that will not send you head-first into hell if you confess and repent, etc. After which, it is presumed, you refrain from committing the sin for a length of time, and then forget and start lying again, in which case you'd have to go right back to the beginning and repent again. The latter category comprises those that, once you commit, will doom you for evermore, and no mercy for you.

However, some religions, including Islam, have indicated that lying is acceptable under certain circumstances:

  • To save one's life (as said by Katib al Wackidi)

  • To effect a peace or reconciliation (Sahih Muslim, Hadith number 6303-05)
  • On the occasion of a journey or expedition (as said by Hishami; Katib al Wackidi).

Similarly we find in the Torah5 examples of allowances for lying:

  • 'Witnesses may omit truth, but will not lie outright' (Ketuvot 27b)

  • If a person is asked for information about something that is to be kept secret (Elyashiv)

  • 'A wealthy man is permitted to lie about his wealth if he fears 'the evil eye' (ayin ha-ra) or if he does not want to arouse jealousy' (Elyashiv)

  • 'When collecting funds for a poor Torah scholar, one may say that he is collecting for hachnasas kallah, marrying off a bride, if he thinks that people will be more receptive to that cause' (Chasam Sofer); 'It is also permitted to raise funds for hachnasas kallah even when the collection is primarily for the benefit of the groom ' (Auerbach)

Before we get too self-righteous and start accusing these teachings as treating truth and deception according to situational ethics, and condoning dishonesty - or, for that matter, pinpointing others as being liars and cheats - let us not forget that hypocrisy is not exactly a tolerated trait in religion, either:

Speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their own conscience seared with a hot iron, forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. - 1 Timothy 4:1-3 The New Testament

The Bottom Line - Is Lying Justified?

So when is a lie a lie? Is lying justified? Does lying in the name of a higher truth or for the sake of saving someone's life cancel out its wrongness?

Del Mendacio offers the following for contemplation:

... They most plentifully prove, that if occasion of doing good require, we may sometimes tell a lie... And to this rule they apply all the instances of lying which are produced from the Old Books, and are found not reprehended, or cannot be reprehended: either they are approved on the score of a progress towards improvement and hope of better things, or in virtue of some hidden signification they are not altogether lies.

At the end of the day, it is up to you to decide. Just a word of advice - if you decide to lie, you'd better make sure you don't get caught.

Read what another researcher has to say about detecting lies.


1And being concise!2Also US ambassador to Switzerland.3Of course you realise this is an incredible example of exaggeration.4This Researcher must confess that thoughts of record falsification have occurred to them when their own experiments failed. In the end, said Researcher decided that honesty was the best policy, wrote up the truth - and got an A for the thesis anyway.5The first five books of the Bible.

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