Why People Lie
The Psychology Behind Deception
You’d be lying if you say you have never told a lie.
We lie effortlessly, in ways big and small, whether it is to strangers, co-workers, friends, or loved ones. Our capacity for dishonesty is as essential to us as our need to trust others, which ironically makes us bad at detecting lies.
I frequently receive advice from my loved ones to not trust anyone and that you never know anyone’s intentions. But, I pondered as to why I shouldn’t trust people? Why do people feel the need to lie? I could not simply agree with the generic explanations that people are just simply bad and I’m simply gullible. I believed there must be something deeper than that.. Don’t we all have the evolutionary need to be liked? To form happy fulfilling relationships? This led me to explore research and uncover the psychology beneath deceit.
There are many different types of lies, self-serving or kind-hearted lies. People lie for many reasons, for example to inflate their image, self-protection, or to protect others. On the other hand, people may lie with the intent of making another person look better or feel better, or to spare them from embarrassment, punishment, or blame, or from getting their feelings hurt.
Research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that majority of people lie at least once or twice daily, which is as frequent as how many times people brush their teeth.
According to researchers, lying as a behaviour arose not long after the emergence of language. From an evolutionary perspective, the ability to manipulate others by lying likely conferred an advantage in the competition for resources and mates, akin to the evolution of deceptive strategies in the animal kingdom, such as camouflage.
“The truth comes naturally.. but lying takes effort and a sharp, flexible mind.” – Psychologist, Bruno Verschuere,
Lying is a part of the developmental process. A child learns to lie between ages 2 and 5, and lie the most when they are testing their independence. For example, lying to your parent/guardian about eating chocolate sneakily (I’m guilty!).
You must be wondering… if we are brought up being taught that lying is bad then at what point do we start lying?
What drives this is the Theory of Mind, which plays a major role in children’s social functioning. Psychologists refer to this as the development of a child’s ability to put himself or herself in someone else’s shoes. During this developmental stage, we acquire for understanding the beliefs, intentions, and knowledge of others. Once children acknowledge that other people could believe things that were different from their beliefs, they used that information strategically to tell lies. In fact, psychologists see the emergence of lying in toddlers as a reassuring sign that their cognitive development is on track. Therefore, lying is just a side-effect of an important mental ability.
On the other hand, some people are pathological liars, meaning that they tell excessive lies and struggle to control this behaviour. The psychological explanations are unclear, however in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (third edition), pathological lying is listed as a disorder, as well as a symptom of personality disorders like psychopathy and narcissism. This is because pathological liars have the neurological lack of empathy, which leads to these individuals not caring about the consequences of lying. In fact, they may not even realise they are lying half the time, because they’re not conscious of it.
Though, there appears to be no agreement among psychiatrists regarding the relationship between mental health and lying. Regardless, of the fact that people with certain psychiatric disorders seem to exhibit specific lying behaviours. Psychiatrist, Orloff the author of “The Empath’s Survival Guide”, tells the Business Insider that “When they lie it doesn’t hurt them in the same way it would hurt us… So many people get into relationships with pathological liars, or just can’t understand why they’re lying, because they’re trying to fit these people into the ordinary standards of what it means to be empathetic.” It is important to consider that compulsive liars are not necessarily bad, they are simply lacking empathy and too impulsive to tell the truth.
Furthermore, most people believe that ‘a little white lie’ isn’t technically a lie because it’s with good intention. However, some of the most common lies are white lies. They are typically used when you are trying to avoid embarrassing or hurting someone’s feelings. While white lies are considered harmless and mundane lie, they are actually never harmless and never beneficial. In fact, little white lies can desensitize you, making it easier to eventually tell bigger lies. Thus, no matter how little you think a lie is, it still has negative consequences.
Remember, the truth will cost nothing, but a lie can cost you everything.