We’ve all been there before. Someone asks you a question, and you decide to lie instead of telling the truth. Why do we adopt that strategy at that specific place and time? Why lie instead of just telling the truth?
The reality is we lie to everyone. From the people that we love, like our partner or parents, to authority figures like our boss and everyone else we meet. Sometimes, it just doesn’t pay to tell the truth. You might be honest, which might detriment your position with the other person. Maybe they’ll think less of you, or perhaps you’ll land in trouble.
There are tons of reasons why we choose to be deceptive with others, but why? What’s the root cause of this behavior? Does everyone lie? We’ve all heard the expression, “honesty is the best policy.” So, why don’t we live up to that?
This post explores why we lie, and how it affects our lives, the people around us, and our relationships.
Why Do People Choose to Lie?
When was the last time you told a lie? What kind of lie was it? Was it a gentle fib? Or did you tell a real stinker that left you feeling guilty afterward? You decided to be deceptive instead of telling the truth for several reasons.
In most cases, we make the decision to lie automatically. Our brain and subconscious decide to be deceptive; before we know it, the lie comes spilling out from our lips into the world. Why did you choose to lie? Let’s look at the top reasons why people are dishonest with others.
One of the top reasons we choose to lie is to avoid taking punishment from others. You might lie to avoid several different levels of discipline. For instance, when you were a young kid, and your parents asked you if you ate all the chocolate in the cupboard, you replied with “no,” despite having chocolate all around your mouth.
Or you might lie to the police when they question why you were speeding. You tell them you had no idea you were going over 60 when you knew you were speeding because you were late for work.
Even worse, you could lie to your spouse and tell them you were working late when you were really meeting a secret lover in a motel. There are different levels in the severity of the lie, but we do it for the same reason – to avoid punishment for our behavior.
In the case of the chocolate-covered kid, you’re lying to avoid being grounded. With the police, you’re trying to avoid a ticket; with your spouse, you’re trying to prevent a divorce. In all three scenarios, you’re trying to cover up your real intentions and behavior at any cost.
Also, in all three cases, the lie can lead to an unexpected outcome where you could have been better off just telling the truth. With the kid, your parents would trust you more for being honest. The police would appreciate your honesty and likely just let you off with a warning. And your spouse would realize you’re not right for each other and move on.
However, that’s not how it went, and the lie leads to more lies, guilt, and emotional distress. For instance, the kid feels bad for deceiving their parents and can’t get to sleep at night. They eventually burst into tears, and when the parents ask you why you did it, you tell them because you were hungry.
With the cops, you get aggressive because they don’t believe you, and you wonder why they’re arresting you for reckless driving instead of letting you go. Later, as you sit in jail, you realize you should have just told the truth.
With your wife, you know she senses something peculiar with your behavior, and the sneaking around eventually leads to you having a huge fight. Now she wants half your assets instead of just walking away from the relationship. You wonder what it would have been like if you had just told her it was over at the time as you sit with the lawyers and divide up your estate.
The next reason why we lie is to gain something from the fib. For instance, you might be looking for acceptance or for kudos. You could be chatting with a group of people about Europe and tell them you went to France when you were young, lying to them to fit in with the conversation. Or you could tell your girlfriend you like watching dramas, even though you can’t stand them.
Or worse, you could lie on a job application because you’re desperate for the work. In these three scenarios, there’s potential for the lie to blow up and ruin your relationships and reputation. For instance, you might say you went to Paris, but when people question you about your time there, you can’t piece together the details.
Your girlfriend might notice you look bored and frustrated when watching the drama movie and ask you why you’re not into it. Or your employer might see you don’t have a specific skill set, even though you claimed you had the required experience.
All three scenarios will come back to haunt you. With the friends, they realize you’re lying, and they snub you from the group. Your girlfriend realizes you’re lying and breaks up with you. And the boss discovers you misrepresented yourself and fires you on the spot.
As for the fallout, you feel lonely because you don’t have friends, and everyone calls you a liar. You can’t hold a stable relationship because your partner can’t trust you, and you can’t find a job because you ruined your reputation.
In most cases, we’re lying to protect ourselves. However, in some cases, we’re lying to protect others. This might seem like a noble cause for lying, but it’s deceptive, regardless of the reason. For example, you could be involved in a car accident with your friend. They hit a tree because they were on their cellphone and not paying attention to the road.
You tell them to flee the scene to avoid the cops arresting him, he’s driving on a suspended license, and he could go to jail. When the cops arrive, you tell them you borrowed your friend’s cart and lost control as you came around the corner. You lie to help you find out. After all, you don’t want to see them go to jail.
Or your friend tells you about how he cheated on his girlfriend. When she asks you if you suspect he’s being unfaithful to her, you say no, and she shouldn’t worry about it, despite the fact that the truth is to the contrary. You do it to have your friend’s back, and you don’t want to look like a rat.
White Lies Vs. Serious Lies – What’s the Difference?
We all tell lies. Most of us tell them every day without even thinking about it. There’s a huge difference in the severity of lies and their impact on our consciousness and others. “White lies” are small lies we tell to avoid others chastising us or to make them feel good about themselves.
For instance, your friend asks you what you think of their new shoes, and you tell them they’re awesome, despite thinking they’re hideous. In this case, you don’t want them to feel bad about their choice. If they feel good about it, who cares what you think? By telling the truth, you make them feel bad and you look like a jerk.
A serious lie is a different story. You could steal something at work and deny it when the boss asks you. That lie weighs on your mind and eats away at your subconscious. You think about the economic pain your cause the company and how the boss fired the wrong person, blaming them for the theft.
You start losing sleep because of your deception, and you eventually manifest other symptoms like stomach pains and anxiety. Ultimately, the guilt becomes so bad that you turn yourself in because the consequences of your actions seem easier to live with than the mental torment in your mind.
Pathological Lying – When Lying Doesn’t Matter
Sociopaths and psychopaths have different brain functions than the average person. These people are capable of “pathological” lying. They tell lies and believe their lies like they were the truth. Their mind convinces them they don’t have to worry about the consequences of deceptive behavior, regardless of the cost to society and their life.
Pathological liars don’t experience guilt about their dishonesty because they think what they say is real to them and the truth. They justify it in their minds and never give the lie a second thought. There’s no remorse for their behavior, and they don’t care who gets hurt due to their deception.
How Do You Know You’re Being Lied To?
While everyone lies, everyone also gives off signals they’re lying. For example, we’ve all heard about “tells” in “Texas Hold Em” poker. A “tell” is a behavior someone does when they’re “bluffing” in the game. A bluff involves lying to the other people at the table, giving the impression you have a stronger or weaker hand than your hold, in an attempt to gain an edge in the game.
The” tell” is the unconscious behavior the player makes when bluffing. For instance, in the movie “Rounders,” starring Matt Damon, Matt ends up in a high-stakes poker game with a Russian card hustler, Teddy, played by John Malkovich. Matt notices that Teddy has a tell where he separates an Oreo cookie when he’s bluffing, using his identification of the behavior to take him down in the game and win the pot.
This “tell” behavior isn’t limited to poker; it happens to everyone when they lie. We make micro-expressions with our faces that give away when we’re lying. Our body language changes, and other people may notice these changes. Tells are unconscious psychological behavior, and unless we discover them and are conscious of them, we won’t correct this behavior.
Uncover the Truth with a Polygraph
A polygraph is a specialized tool for discovering deceptive behavior. It involves using specialized equipment and computer software to interpret the “fight-or-flight” response initiated by the sympathetic nervous system when we lie.
The polygraph equipment measures pulse and respiration rate, blood pressure, body movement, and sweat gland activity. When we lie, our behavior unconsciously activates the “sympathetic nervous system.” We tell a lie to avoid an adverse outcome, producing a similar biological response to avoiding predators on the savannah back in the days of our ancestors.
It’s impossible to stop this from happening. It’s like the “tell” mentioned above. It’s a subconscious response, and it’s impossible to avoid. A polygraph records these physiological changes through the equipment and the software. A talented and trained polygraph examiner interprets those signals, looking for signs of deception triggered by the fight-or-flight response.
If you want to try and control the fight-or-flight response, good luck with that. It’s next to impossible to govern this primal part of the brain and nervous system. That’s why polygraphs are so effective at exposing lying behavior.
Even if you get through the questions, the examiner will review recorded footage of the session later and look for body language and micro-expressions to uncover deceptive behavior. Experts believe a polygraph is up to 98% effective at spotting lies.
Why Do We Lie? – Key Takeaways
- We tell lies every day; it’s part of human nature. Finding someone that is genuinely honest all the time is next to impossible.
- Some people are better at telling lies than others. They may have sociopathic or psychopathic tendencies and have skills as a pathological liar.
- When we lie, we give off unconscious behavior acting as “tells” others can spot to uncover our deception. The sympathetic nervous system controls these responses, which are difficult to suppress.
- A polygraph test is the most effective means of uncovering deceptive behavior in others. The lie detector test monitors the flight-or-flight response created by the sympathetic nervous system.
- Unless you have complete control over your emotions, you won’t get away with lying on a polygraph.