What is a lie? We all do it, but do we understand a clear definition of this behavior? Lying is the art of deception; it’s telling an untruth in the hope that people interpret it as a truthful statement. When we lie, we want someone to believe that what we’re telling them is authentic, manipulating their conscious mind and intermixing it with our own perception and intention.
Lying and deceptive behavior are as old as time. For as long as we’ve been able to communicate as a species, we’ve told lies. Other than the obvious, the difference between truth and lies is that truth is the truth; there’s no variation in it. Whereas lies can take many forms.
We have white lies, severe lies, manipulative lies, and so on. Lying is a form of communication we adapt to our behavior to serve a purpose in our life. While we all want to be as truthful as possible all the time, and we understand the importance of telling the truth, the reality is lies serve a purpose and role in our lives.
Telling the truth all the time just isn’t possible for the average person. While you might take that as a shocking statement, it’s just your programming telling you otherwise. For instance, how often have you told someone you’re running a few minutes late to a meeting when you’re still half an hour away? You arrive and tell them traffic was terrible when you left the house late.
It’s not like you were trying to hurt their feelings, but you didn’t want them to leave before you got there. And it’s good that you took that approach because you got what you wanted from the meeting, and no one got hurt, right?
Understanding the psychology of lying means revealing and interpreting why we tell lies. What motivates us to this behavior? Why do we choose to lie when we can say the truth? What are the intentions behind the lies we tell?
We’ll explore all these questions and more in this post.
When Do We Develop Lying Behavior?
We learn to lie from a young age. Most of us understand the concept of lying by the time we’re three years old. Right now, try and recall your earliest memory. Chances are you can’t get back to earlier than age five. That means you understood lies even before your conscious memory was formed.
Lying is a learned behavioral trait, not an ingrained instinct in our DNA. We pick up other people’s behavior, and our minds start to process what would happen if we were dishonest with others. We begin to stretch the boundaries of perception, which usually results in us telling our first lie.
Children aren’t good liars, but they get better at their behavior as they age. By the time kids reach age four, just a year after telling their first lie, they’re already getting better at the storytelling involved with lying. By the time they reach six years, they’re already adept at it and start telling whoppers that seem outlandish.
Lying and Our Neurology
How often have you heard the rhyme “liar, liar, pants on fire!?” The thing is, it isn’t your clothing that’s catching on fire; it’s the neural centers in your brain that light up when you tell a lie. There are specific areas of the brain, the pre-frontal cortex, the right frontal gyrus, and the left caudate, that activate when we tell a fib.
These areas have a direct influence on activity in the amygdala, which stimulates the feeling of guilt and shame after lying. However, the more we tell lies, the less we experience that relationship between our brain centers. We get more comfortable with lying and are desensitized to the feelings of guilt associated with the action.
There are Different Types of Lies
We all lie, but there are different levels of severity attached to the lies we tell. As mentioned, there’s only one scale of truth, but many variations of lies exist. White lies are innocent and have no ill intention attached to them.
In most cases, we’re telling white lies to avoid hurting other people’s feelings or just for play. For instance, you could be bluffing in a poker game or tell your partner their dress looks great, even though you think it looks horrid on them.
The intention and malice attached to severe lies are the real problems. Telling a lie that could adversely impact another person’s life experience is what we all find so offensive.
The Psychology of Lying – Understanding Lying Behavior
So, why do we lie? What reasons push us into this behavior? Let’s look at some of the influences in our lives that cause us to lie.
People Lie for Personal Gain
Many people lie with the specific intent of reaping benefits from telling the fib. Before revealing the lie, they’ll weigh up the pros and cons of it and go with the lie because it offers them more benefits than telling the truth. They’ll lie to avoid punishment, gain admiration, receive a reward, or gain control over others. If we lie with selfish intent, it’s antisocial behavior.
We Lie for the Benefit of Others
Sometimes, we lie to protect or benefit others. For instance, your colleague arrives later at the office and tells you she will be in trouble if the boss finds out. The boss calls the office and asks you if she is late to work. You lie and say they arrived on time. Or you might lie to someone to keep a secret someone told you not to reveal.
We Communicate Through Lies
The best way to view lying is to consider it a form of communication. Humans communicate through the words we say, the body language we display, and the words we write. The purpose of communication is to relay information to others and either bring ourselves up to speed with their life experience or do the same for them.
There is honest and dishonest communication, and both have a societal role. For instance, you could be honest with the team at work that the company had a rough quarter, hoping they lift their actions and productivity to bring in more income. Or you could lie to them and tell them everything’s okay with the business to prevent them from panicking.
Lying as an Avoidance Strategy
People sometimes lie to avoid situations and tasks they don’t like. For instance, the thought of going to a dinner party at your friend’s house seems like too much effort to get there, so you call them and tell them you couldn’t find a babysitter for the kids.
Lying and Gullibility
Sometimes, we’ll lie to someone because we know we can get away with it. Not because the lie is so believable but because we know we’re dealing with a gullible person, and they’ll believe whatever we tell them. Some people are more gullible than others.
For instance, in the era of fake news, just look at the people that believe a fake story and how many times they fall for these media-based lies. They’ll believe anything they’re told and don’t bother to fact-check it before spreading it to others.
Lying to Cover Up Other Lies
Sometimes we’ll lie to cover up other lies we told in the past. For instance, you might tell someone you went to the beach on the weekend when you stayed home. They’ll ask you how it was, and you have to tell them more lies about the weather, the water, and the activity on the boardwalk. Before you know it, you’ve said ten lies and woven an entirely fictional story.
The Issue with Lying and Memory
The problem with telling lies versus telling the truth is that the truth builds memories while lying builds fantasies. For instance, we discussed the issue of going to the beach and weaving a fantastical story about how great of a day it was, despite you really staying home.
The problem is that because you didn’t go to the beach, you don’t have any memory of it. Even though you made up a great story and saw it in your mind’s eye as if you were there, it’s not an actual occurrence. You can’t turn it into a memory the same way as if you really went to the beach.
Now if the same person asks you to relay the same story three months later, you’ll have a hard time explaining it the same way as you did the first time. You might confuse the details, and the other person remembers them as you told them. They’ll immediately identify your lies and may or may not call you out on them.
While lying about going to the beach is no big deal, things could change if you have to lie about something serious and can’t recall the details a few weeks or months later. The other person picks up your lies, and your trust is immediately broken.
Liars Have Specific Behavioral Characteristics
Lying is a psychological activity, and we all do it occasionally. Despite our intentions of concealing our deceit, we all create verbal and physical cues others can use to identify our deception. If you don’t know how to spot these cues, you might never know if someone’s lying to you.
However, when you learn them, spotting these behaviors and patterns becomes easy, helping you catch the liar in their deception. Here are some basic behaviors to help you spot a liar in your midst.
- Changes in their rate of breathing.
- Standing unusually still.
- Turning up the corners of their mouth.
- Dropping one of the shoulders.
- Breaking eye contact while making up details in a story.
- Quick movements of the head.
- Standing unusually still while telling a story.
- Repetition of words and phrases.
- Rambling and oversharing details.
- Covering the mouth or hiding the face.
- Sitting or standing nervously.
- Hiding the hands, crossing legs, or slouching in a chair.
Lying in Therapy
We lie out of self-preservation in many instances, which is why many people lie to their therapists. It’s a new person you meet in life, and you’ve yet to establish a rapport and trust with them that allows you to open up about your true emotions and experiences.
People lie to their therapists because they don’t want to reveal something shameful or embarrassing. They fear the therapist’s judgment and how it may change their image of themselves. Lying to a therapist helps people paint themselves into any picture they want and avoids the fear of revealing the hard problems in their minds.
However, the reality is that lying to the therapist is a waste of time and money. If you can’t open up to them, then why are you in the therapy room in the first place? If you can’t talk to your therapist, even after several sessions, it might be better to find another one, as your personality types might clash.
For instance, a man with an attractive young woman for their therapist might be ashamed of revealing their history of sexual abuse from their father because it makes them seem weak, damaging their ego.
Pathological Lying Might Be a Sign of a Mental Disorder
There are different types of liars. We all tell white lies, but most of us stick to telling the truth in social engagements with others. However, compulsive and pathological liars are different. The compulsive liar lies out of habit. They find it easier to lie than, to tell the truth. However, they know the difference between right and wrong and will usually own up to their lies if someone presses them about it.
Pathological liars lie a lot, but they do so for different reasons. Usually, they’re cunning and manipulative people and lie to others to achieve a specific gain from the action. Pathological liars generally exhibit antisocial behavior and don’t see the difference between right and wrong because they don’t have a moral compass.
They often believe their lies, and if pressed about them, they become defensive and argumentative. Pathological lying can occur because of a mental disorder, such as antisocial personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, or other mental health conditions leading to this behavior.