Why Do People Lie? 7 Major Reasons For Deception (And How To Spot A Liar)
Updated January 20, 2019
Why do people lie?
Deception comes in many forms, and lying is just one of them. According to author Pamela Meyer, author of Liespotting: Proven Techniques to Detect Deception, strangers lie within minutes of meeting one another and the average person hears between ten to two hundred lies per day, although most lies go undetected. Meyer notes many of the tell-tale signs that someone is lying. She discusses everything from fleeting microexpressions and contradictory body language to fake smiles, asymmetrical expressions, qualifying, distancing or emphatic language, shifts in rates of blinking, signs of contempt and even crocodile tears.
Yet even with all the information we have about how to tell if someone is lying, the other major question remains: why do people lie in the first place?
To preserve their self-image. Whether it be minor white lies that exaggerate one’s accomplishments or elaborate tall tales that omit important information about one’s shady character, those who are led to lie for this reason are attempting to preserve their self-image. They want to engage in “impression management” so that others perceive them in the best possible light. A politician might fib about an extramarital affair so he can preserve his reputation for moral propriety. An employee might lie about why she is chronically late to work, blaming it on her commute, when in reality, it is her inability to wake up early in the morning.
Personality disorders and pathological, compulsive lying. This form of lying stems from a far deeper and darker problem – a personality disorder prone to manipulation or a pathological issue such as compulsive lying. Those with Narcissistic Personality Disorder or Antisocial Personality Disorder, for example, are known for their pathological lying. They lie in order to deceive, to manipulate and for their own benefit.Those with sociopathic or psychopathic traits can lie to gaslight someone and erode their sense of reality, causing their victims feel off-balance. Some even lie when the situation does not warrant it because it gives them “duping delight” – the pleasure of being able to one-up someone which reveals itself in the flash of a creepy, satisfied smile. For them, lying is something that satiates their sadistic need to be in control.
To protect a relationship or someone else’s feelings. These types of lies are usually told to protect a significant relationship. For example, a man may lie about cheating so his significant other does not break up with him. Or, a conscientious woman might compliment her friend’s attire even if she believes it is hideous, because she doesn’t want to hurt that person’s feelings. While the intention behind this form of lying can be either well-intentioned or deceitful, its main agenda lies in preserving the relationship or sparing someone undue and unnecessary pain.
To protect someone else. This form of lying is done with the intention of protecting someone from the consequences of their actions. A domestic violence survivor might lie about the extent of the abuse she endured in a misguided attempt to protect her abuser. A parent might lie about a child’s criminal actions to protect that child from legal consequences that could destroy his life. These lies help to shield someone from accountability and may or may not be justifiable depending on the circumstances.
To impress people and boost one’s reputation. This is a common form of lying that is normally tied to one’s desire to impress society or crucial stakeholders in one’s life. A potential job candidate might exaggerate her credentials and work experience to land that dream job. A date might lie about what he does for a living to make someone perceive him as a desirable partner. These lies are based in self-interest and are told to gain something – whether it be status, approval or even a more tangible gain like a promotion or career opportunity.
To mitigate or evade conflict. According to psychologists, some liars deceive in order to avoid conflict and confrontation. If the act of lying can lead to more benefits than consequences interpersonally, it is “worth” doing in the liar’s mind.In this context, the liar may fear punishment or the perceived punishment of confronting someone else’s undesirable emotional reaction to the truth. A teenager might lie about where she has been to avoid the wrath of her abusive father – a legitimate lie which is told for self-protection. Or, a fearful student might lie about studying for an exam if he fears his teacher’s disappointment.
In the former context, the liar has justifiable reasons for lying – she knows that her abusive father will resort to violence if she tells the truth. In the latter scenario, the liar is attempting to appease his own anxiety surrounding disapproval, when in fact, the truth may actually benefit them both in the long-term.
Instant gratification. If the perceived reward of lying can bring instantaneous results to the person lying, he or she may be more likely to fib. This form of lying is all about the end result. It occurs when a child “promises” to clean his room in order to watch his favorite television show, but later fails to do so. Or when a dating partner lies to us about wanting a serious relationship – just in order to get laid.
The Chronic Liar
Not all lies are the same and not all liars are pathological. Some lies are justifiable, while others aren’t. Some are major, while others are minor. Some are done with good intentions, while other lies are employed with malice. Some lies pose irrevocable harm, while others actually prevent damage to the otherwise innocent.
Yet when used chronically, lying can lead to more than just deception. It can wreak havoc on a relationship, create an untrustworthy and unreliable environment and diminish one’s sense of reality.
Before one turns to lying as a main form of communicaton, the real question they ask themselves shouldn’t be, what will I be gaining? But rather, what could I be losing?
Gozna, L. F., Vrij, A., & Bull, R. (1996). Lying in Everyday Life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 979-995. doi:10.1037/t13495-000
Becker, G. D. (2010). The gift of fear: Survival signals that protect us from violence. London: Bloomsbury.
Digiday, & Carnicero, S. (2016, February 09). Former CIA officer will teach you how to spot a lie. Retrieved here. Meyer, P. (2011). Liespotting: Proven techniques to detect deception. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.
Meyer, P. (2011). Pamela Meyer: How to spot a liar. TED Talk. Retrieved here. About the author Shahida is the author of Power: Surviving and Thriving After Narcissistic Abuse and the poetry book She Who Destroys the Light. She is a staff writer at Thought Catalog. Follow Shahida on Instagram or read more articles from Shahida on Thought Catalog.