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Deciding to Lie

 

Explanations > Behaviors > Lying > Deciding to Lie

Benefit to self | Benefit to others | Chance of detection | Consequences of detection | So what

 

Why do people decide to lie? How do they go about making the decision? As with many decisions there are two sides of the same coin that drive us: benefits and harm. If what I gain is more significant to me now than what I lose, then lying can seem like a good choice.

Benefit to self

If I am going to tell a lie, then there is always a benefit of some kind that I gain from lying. The only problem is that this is not always material and can be social or even quite perverse.

Avoiding harm

Many of our lies are intended to save us from discomfort, which may be material, social or psychic, as below. The greater the threat we perceive, the greater the lies we may be motivated to tell.

In a similar way, we will lie to reduce the chances of harm. As we muse about the future and predict possibilities, we will look for ways, including lying, to avoid those which we consider undesirable.

Material gain

The simplest gain is where I get some solid advantage from lying, such as when a criminal lies to the police to avoid prosecution ('I wasn't there'), or where a sales person lies to customers in order to make a sale ('You look great in that').

Social gain

When people lie to help others ('white lies'), most notably to enable them to save face and avoid embarrassment, then whilst the liar does not gain materially, the other person has some consequent obligation to return the favor in some way in the future.

Psychic gain

We also lie for inner reasons, for example to explain why our actions have contradicted our values. In such areas of internal conflict we also lie to ourselves in order to avoid the cognitive dissonance of knowing we are not who we want to be.

Sometimes people lie without anyone gaining and with all parties potentially losing. A typical example is where a person lies out of revenge or to spite another person, even though they know they will lose out from doing so.

Benefit to others

We often lie to help others. This is particularly true when social rules say we must lie, for example in saving face and helping protect our friends and family from harm.

Saving embarrassment

When a person knows another person is incompetent, then the first person may well avoid bringing this up. They may even compensate (perhaps due to inner guilt at such unkind thoughts) by declaring the second person excellent in various ways.

There are many social rules about this and 'saving face' is a critical activity in many cultures.

Material gain for them

Sometimes we lie to help others gain something substantial. This may well be a part of a process of social exchange, where we help them in order that they will help us at some other time.

Because lying has a 'bad' aspect to it, when we help others we are effectively saying 'I will put myself in harm's way for you'. This increases the social capital gained by and so builds additional trust through the use of active care.

Chance of detection

If a person is considering lying then a critical question they will ask themselves is whether their lies will be detected. If the chance of this is low, then the likelihood of them lying will increase as they conclude that the benefits are worth the small risk involved in being found out.

Mitigation

It is also possible that the person can take steps to reduce the chance of detection, for example:

  • Ensuring there are no witnesses or others who may alert the other person to the deception.
  • Considering what they will say, reviewing it for consistency and feasibility.
  • Practicing the words, rehearsing in their heads and out loud.
  • Developing their skill in lying, managing body language and voice tone.

Consequences of detection

An additional factor that the potential liar will consider will be the consequence if their untruths are found out. This combines with the likelihood of detection in the same way that impact and probability are two classic dimensions of risk management.

The target

If the recipient of the lies finds out, then there may be direct personal reprisals as the effects of betrayal occur. The actual consequences in such a situation would be directly related to the power of the other person, particularly relative to the power of the liar.

If, however, the lies are to save face or otherwise benefit the other person, then there are no negative consequences and a high chance of detection may even be desirable as the positive consequence of gratitude gives the liar some benefit.

Other people

Where other people are involved, either being witnesses or being called upon by a suspicious target, then the problem for the liar will expand in proportion to the collective power of these people. For example if a person maliciously lies to a friend, who then tells the rest of their common friends, the liar may find themselves ostracized or otherwise punished.

There is a significant difference between one and two opponents. When there is one person, it is your word against theirs. When there are two, then you start to look to be in the wrong.

So what?

If you intend lying, do be conscious about considering these factors. If you are detecting lying, then watch for signs of manipulation and mitigation.

See also

Exchange principle, Thinking and Lying

 

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