Blog Short #109: Why People Lie
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Have you ever told a lie? Of course you have! Everyone has.
But not all lies are equal. Some lies are told to avoid hurting someone’s feelings or to be polite. At the other end of the spectrum, the purpose is to manipulate and take advantage of someone for selfish gain.
Does that mean that lies are all right in some cases?
Some think not, and others believe yes. Regardless of where you land on that question, it’s best to strive for honesty.
Researchers classify lies by looking at two factors:
- The purpose of the lie.
- The volume and prevalence of lying.
I was surprised at some of the findings, and I’m betting you’ll be surprised too.
Today I’m reviewing the most common reasons people lie, along with some statistics regarding the prevalence of lying. Next week I’ll talk about how to stop lying and review relationship practices that help prevent lying.
Let’s start with the statistics.
How often do people lie?
These stats come from a major study examining 116,366 lies told by 632 participants over 91 days. Here’s what they found:
- Around 75% of the respondents told between zero and two lies per day, much less than you might have thought.
- These were mainly little white lies or “inconsequential,” meaning there was no intent to cause harm.
- Another 6% had low levels of lying on average but had days where they lied with greater frequency.
- Another 1% rarely lied.
- Prolific liars, the last group, had a much greater frequency of lying, and their lies were more consequential. This was especially true for the top 1% of liars who lied on an average of 17 lies per day.
I found these statistics surprising because I think the general perception is that people lie much more than that. It’s encouraging that the majority of people still honor being truthful.
Who do people lie to?
Another statistic has to do with who people lie to. This one seems more in line with what you might think. Here they are:
- 51% – friends
- 21% – family
- 11% – school/business colleagues
- 8.9% – strangers
- 8.5% – casual acquaintances
- We lie more to people we know well. That would make sense because we have more interaction and intimacy with them. We care more about what they think of us.
Now let’s go on to why people lie.
9 Reasons People Lie
1. Avoid punishment or repercussions for a wrong action.
You tell your boss you finished the report he asked you to do and mailed it off on time even though you haven’t finished it and are scrambling to get it done so you can get it in the mail tomorrow.
Your teen skips school, and when the school calls, you tell them he stayed home today and isn’t feeling well.
Lies to avoid punishment can apply to you or someone you wish to protect. In both cases, you’re hoping you (or they) won’t be found out and can save face or avoid negative consequences.
2. Get out of an awkward situation, or be polite.
You use this one when you want to avoid a situation or avoid hurting someone’s feelings unnecessarily. You might say you have an appointment and need to be on time in order to extricate yourself from a long-winded conversation. Or if your friend asks you what you think of her new dress, you say, “It looks great!” even though you don’t particularly like it.
3. Make yourself look good.
There are many versions of this one. You might exaggerate your performance, embellish a story, boast, or purposely leave out details that make you look bad.
Lying to look good can get serious, depending on what you’re lying about. A typical example is putting something on your resume that’s not true. It’s a misrepresentation, no matter how you cut it.
4. Maintain privacy.
There are things you want to keep to yourself for whatever reason, and you tell a lie to avoid exposing them.
Maybe you started a new diet and are out to lunch with your friends. You order a salad with no-fat dressing, and one of your friends asks you if you’re on a diet. You say, “No, I’m just not all that hungry today.” You don’t want to share that you’re dieting because you don’t anyone to observe your progress or lack of.
5. Be safe.
If someone comes to your door selling something, but you get a bad feeling about them, you mention that your husband’s at home even though he isn’t, so they don’t know you’re alone.
These lies feel necessary. You don’t bat an eye at telling them because it’s a matter of safety.
6. Fear of disappointing or angering someone.
You lie to avoid a conflict or cause disappointment. The lie can be benign, like forgetting to make dinner reservations for date night with your partner. Or it can be serious, like cheating on your partner.
In the latter case, you’re also avoiding the consequences of your behavior if it’s exposed.
7. Cover a previous lie.
This is when things get messy. You’ve lied about something else before, and now you have to lie again to cover that lie. Prevalent liars are more likely to find themselves in this situation, but not always.
What if you have a credit card bill you’re keeping from your partner and previously told him you were managing your spending well? Later, he asks you if you wouldn’t mind using your credit card to purchase the new couch you’ve both chosen, and he’ll pay the bill when it comes in. Now you have to make up a story because you don’t have enough credit available on your card for that purchase.
Covering a previous lie is anxiety-provoking and harder to keep straight if you lie a lot.
8. Experience the thrill of it.
Some people want to see what they can get away with and take some pleasure in succeeding.
An extreme example would be someone dating two people simultaneously without either of them knowing about the other. It would involve lots of lying to make it work.
A less extreme and more normal example is a 9-year-old child lying to his parents about brushing his teeth before bed. He’s testing the waters to see if lying is a viable behavior.
9. Get someone to do what you want them to.
In other words, manipulate for your gain at their expense.
This type of lying is calculated and often predatory. There’s a lack of concern for the other person.
On a large scale, marketers, politicians, and corporations may lie to sway you and get what they want. On a personal level, a seeming friend might purposefully manipulate you to do something that will benefit them, even if it doesn’t help you or does you harm.
Two Last Things
You’ll note that some reasons for lying are more focused on preserving your reputation or good standing. Although this lying is dishonest and not something to do habitually, the intent is not to cause harm.
The last category we discussed is devoid of concern for the person being lied to. These lies have a sociopathic quality. The sole aim is to get something regardless of whether or not someone gets hurt in the process.
One other item of note is that research has shown that the more someone lies, the easier it is to be dishonest over time. Changes occur in the brain that quiet the signaling of danger when you’re lying. Like any habit, lying gets easier with repetition.
I’ll talk more about that next week.
That’s all for today.
I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving!
All my best,
Garrett, N., Lazzaro, S., Ariely, D., & Sharot, T. (2016). The brain adapts to dishonesty. Nature Neuroscience 19(12), 1727-1732. DOI:10.1038/nn.4426
How often do people lie? (2021, November 17). Currents, University of Wisconsin-LA Crosse Blog. https://www.uwlax.edu/currents/how-often-do-people-lie/
Serota, K., Levine, T. & Boster, F. (2009). The Prevalence of Lying in America: Three studies of self-reported lies. Human Communication Research, 36(1), 2 – 25. DOI:10.1111/j.1468-2958.2009.01366.x
Serota, K. & Levine, T. (2014). A few prolific liars. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 34(2) 1-20. DOI:10.1177/0261927X14528804
Serota, K., Levine, T. & Docan-Morgan, T. (2021). Unpacking variation in lie prevalence: Prolific liars, bad lie days, or both? Communication Monographs, National Communication Association, 89(3), 307-331. https://doi.org/10.1080/03637751.2021.1985153