Lies: Why We Tell Them and When to Stop

Photo courtesy of Katie Tegtmeyer
Ask anyone how they feel about lying, and the vast majority of adults and even children would respond that it is wrong. They might also tell you that they don’t do it.

They’d be lying.

While we’ve all been conditioned to strive for honesty, truth and honor - the fact remains that most of us tell “half-truths” on a semi-regular basis. In fact, the act of lying is  a natural human trait. When questioned, most of us would say we fight against that trait, but in reality, we just can’t help ourselves.

But why do we do it?

Psychologists have been scratching their heads over this very question for a long time. Since the mere concept of lying has such a negative connotation, being dishonest is not something that many people like to admit to, making it a complicated phenomenon that is difficult to study and therefore, understand.

The fact remains that lying has interested psychologists for years precisely because of its complexity. Thus, many studies have been completed with the goal of discovering the motivation behind lies and what types of people tell the biggest whoppers.

One thing’s for certain: the ability to lie effectively is actually a sign of intellect and high cognitive ability. For me, that information conjured up a mental image of playing Truth or Dare with the likes of Hannibal Lector, but you don’t have to be an evil genius to tell a tall tale. Here’s what researchers know about the why behind the lie:

  • Saving our butts – The vast majority of lies happen when we’re attempting to stay out (or get out) of trouble. Yeah, sure, we know that honesty’s always the best policy, but we want to look good, even if we have to lie to make that happen.
  • Keeping the peace – What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her, right?
  • Flattery – We bring out these little white lies to make other people feel good about themselves. Who knew distorting the truth could be so altruistic?
  • Power imbalance – There’s a power dynamic in every relationship – it may shift in different situations – but in general, the person with less power often resorts to lying to the person in control because it just seems easier.
  • Societal rules – As was demonstrated in the movie “The Invention of Lying,” life would be a very different experience if we blurted out truths 24/7. Imagine admitting to your boss that you think she’s ugly, or telling everyone that you were late to the party because you had an episode of explosive diarrhea.  Societal norms keep us at arms’ length from people we don’t intimately know, thus making it necessary to be less than honest, or risk embarrassment nearly constantly.

What I found interesting is the fact that even animals have the ability to lie to each other! Disappointingly, however, humans are the only species who have ability to lie to ourselves (and not even realize it.)

The truth is, as humans, we’re primarily motivated by maintaining our sense of self and maintaining successful relationships. These two gigantic motivating factors are at play every time we interact with other people. Thus, we stay mum about the negative parts of ourselves, and put a little “twist” on our accomplishments and merits. As long as you aren’t harboring a huge, life changing secret (like the fact that you’re having an affair), sticking to little white lies is probably not going to get you into any trouble.

I said probably.

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