Why Do We Lie?

why do we lie

We’ve all been there. When you friend or mom or whomever asks that dreaded question: “does this dress/shirt/skirt/pants make me look fat?” And of course, you would never tell your friend or mom or whoever “yes, that article of clothing does make you look fat.” So you lie in order to spare their feelings.

Lying comes in many forms, from those little white lies to big, ugly, compulsive lying. According to an article on The Hope Line, there are actually eight different types of lies we tell. And they are:

  • White Lies: lies we tell to be polite; considered the least serious of the lies
  • Broken Promises: failures to keep spoken commitments or promises
  • Fabrication: telling others something you don’t know for sure is true; often leads to rumors
  • Bold-Faced Lie: saying something that everyone knows is a lie
  • Exaggeration: enhancing the truth by adding in lies
  • Deception: trying to create an impression that misleads others
  • Plagiarism: copying someone else’s work and calling it your own
  • Compulsive Lying: telling lies despite it being easier to tell the truth

Lying comes in many shapes and forms and varying severity, but at some point in our life, we lie. I lied to my mother yesterday when I told her I was studying when I was really watching the TV show House, where the signature catchphrase is: everybody lies. Ironic, right?

Yet, we are taught not to lie and we do it anyway, even though we know it’s hurtful. Most people consider lying a bad habit, but if it’s bad, why do we do it?

Scientifically, we lie because of two different factors that this Psychology Today article lays out. The first factor is behavioral conditioning. People love to lie because it causes a thrill. It’s like gambling–someone is either going to believe you and you get away with your lie, or they’re going to call you out. When we lie, we don’t know if we’ll get away with it, which means it has an unpredictable payoff. In conditioning terms, this is called a variable reward schedule, which strongly maintains a learned behavior.

The second factor the article describes is cognitive evolutionary biology. Lying is a survival skill. You told that white lie about that article of clothing not making whomever look fat, because you knew if you told the truth, you’d be in some sort of danger (probably relationship danger). Lying can help you escape awkward situations, save relationships, ward off trouble, and make us look better. We lie to save ourselves.

We’ve established the types of lies and why we lie, so how can we avoid lying in general?

The first step is to think about why you lie. Are you scared? Angry? Looking for control? Feeling pressured? If you can figure out the cause of your lying, you can figure out a solution to stop.

The second step is to consciously and actively tell the truth. Sometimes we tell lies unconsciously because that’s what we’ve taught ourselves to do, but now is the time to change that behavioral pattern. If you know something isn’t true, don’t say it. Be ready to tell the truth and face the consequences, which could be mild to severe, depending on the situation. My parents always said: “you’ll get in less trouble if you tell the truth than if you lie”.

Lying helps us feel safe in an uncomfortable environment, while also giving us a thrill. But at the end of the day, lying can be a destructive habit, and you can take the steps necessary to lie less and save your relationships.

Also published on Medium.