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Why We Lie


Explanations > Behaviors > Lying > Why We Lie

Helping ourselves | Helping others | Learning to lie | So what


As humans, it seems we are natural and compulsive liars. Most people tell some kind of lies every day. Of course some are more serious than others, but in many instances it is not seen as being very bad.

Helping ourselves

A very common reason to lie is in order to help ourselves in some way. This can be psychological, supporting the ego, or substantive, gaining material benefit. A matrix of how such actions may be understood is shown and described below:


Selfish lying matrix

What is being achieved
Gaining Avoiding

What is at stake



Avoiding punishment

Lying often starts with wrong-doing. For whatever reason, we do something that others disapprove of. When they are in a position of greater power, they might punish us. Even if not, their disapproval may be punishment enough.

In consequence, we deny the crime, pointing the finger at others, denying the action or justifying the act with some fabricated excuse.

Avoiding embarrassment

When others might not directly punish us, embarrassment is a powerful form of self-inflicted punishment, where we imagine what others are thinking and assume they are silently disapproving.

The implied loss of esteem and social position that causes embarrassment is a powerful force on us, enough to make us lie to reduce the impact on our social position.

Gaining advantage

Lying can also be used more directly, for material gain. If, by telling fibs, you can negotiate a lower price or get things for no cost, then telling untruth may seem worthwhile.

There are many ways that we lie to gain advantage, for example:

  • Romance: A man telling tales of his sporting prowess in order to gain romantic admiration.
  • Sales: A car sales person saying there is nothing wrong with the wreck they are selling.
  • Reward: A child saying she has done her homework in order to get taken to the movies.

Gaining esteem

The flip-side of embarrassment is to gain the admiration of other people and so a specific advantage we seek when lying is for others to think well of us.

Impression-management is particularly common in social, romantic and work situations, where we need others to think we are competent and successful in order to get their approval and the subsequent rewards they can give. Lying in order to make oneself look good is particularly common in job interviews, where 'resume inflation' is particularly common.

Helping others

A more socially acceptable, desirable and even necessary reason for lying is to help others, particularly your friends and family.

Sometimes, however, we use this as an excuse, telling ourselves we are lying for others when we really are gaining as much or more more benefit for ourselves, such as avoiding embarrassment.

White lies

Sometimes we avoid telling things to other people more for their benefit than ours. For example saying you are feeling fine when you know it would upset a friend if you said you have serious illness. White lies are also often used in face-saving.


'Face' is a term used to indicate the public respect given to a person. 'Saving face' is hence a term for helping them to sustain the esteem of others and to avoid embarrassment. Different cultures have very specific rules about what face-saving is needed and how it should be done.

One way we help others to save face is more about not telling the truth rather than overtly lying. If we meet a person with bad breath, for example, most would avoid pointing out this problem.

Beyond being 'economical with the truth', the lies we tell to save face may be couched in euphemisms and other vague statements as we try to help others feel good whilst also seeking to avoid telling big lies ourselves.

Supporting friends

Another way we tell lies is more directly in helping others avoid trouble, for example when we give them an alibi, saying they were with us rather than in some other compromising situation. At the most extreme, we might even commit perjury, lying in court to save our friends.

The extent to which we lie for others is often determined by local culture. In some parts of the world, it would be considered only right that a person lies, even in court, to save their friends. In other places, such as Northern Europe and North America, there is much greater concern to be truthful, especially in a legal situation.

Learning to lie

We are not born liars, although we most certainly do have the mental faculties and inclination for deceit, to the point where we are known as the 'mendacious ape'.

Childhood escapes

Young children learn fast about what works and what does not work. Lacking the physical ability to get what they want, they discover natural guile and soon start lying in order to avoid punishment, receive rewards and get their siblings into trouble.

Early deceits are obvious, such as when a child holds something behind their back as they say they do not have it. Before long, however, they learn to hide it somewhere else and put on a surprised and insulted look when their parents dare accuse them of wrong-doing. In fact when children are punished for lying, rather than doing it less, they often just get better they get at it.

Justifying stories

Rather than directly lie, another approach is to use justification as a method of accepting that something has happened but showing that it was the best alternative course of action in the situation.

When blame is difficult to dodge, children will quickly make up stories that justify how they have behaved. Pinnochio-like, these can quickly become elaborated to cover the challenges they get, using their natural creativity to help weave elaborate yet credible tales.

Little deceits

Given the chance to deceive without being detected, most people will, in fact, deceive in small ways. This is reflected in the common debate about stealing office supplies from the workplace. Whilst many would never contemplate stealing computers, taking a pen home seems quite reasonable.

The same effect happens with lying. Small lies and little deceits are seen as being acceptable, which in many social circles they are.

So what?

Understand the reasons why people lie and use this in detecting deception.

If you are trying to get to the truth with someone who may be lying, you can help them justify their actions by saying how reasonable it is to avoid embarrassment, and so on. You can also help reduce the significance of the act, helping them see it as a 'little deceit' that is not worth defending.

If you are a parent, help your children adopt the value that lying is bad rather than punishing them for lies. Likewise if you are a manager, praise your people for telling the truth and they will lie and cover up less.

See also

The Mendacious Ape


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