More Than a White Lie

Most people lie once or twice daily—with mere exaggerations and frank deceptions.

By Hara Estroff Marano, published on November 5, 2007 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Is it possible for a person to tell lies without realizing they are doing so? I have a niece who seems to lie all the time, and at times I believe she thinks she is telling the truth.

Yes, it's possible for a person to tell lots of lies, but no, it's not likely the fabricator doesn't realize it. For some people, it's easy to slip from the idea that something could have happened to the conviction that it definitely did happen. But if confronted, they may readily admit that what they are saying is not true.

Lying is one of the great facts of social life. Most people lie sometimes—about once or twice a day, as often as they brush their teeth. And some people lie often. People tend to lie more in phone calls than face to face.

Researchers, who asked people of all ages to keep tabs of all falsehoods they told in the course of a week, found that about 10 percent of lies are mere exaggerations rather than frank deceptions (which make up about 60 percent of lies). Some are subtle lies of omission. And while many lies are told to smooth over awkward situations and protect fragile egos—that is, to preserve relationships—some lies deeply damage relationships and destroy trust.

Some relationships, such as those between adolescents and their parents, are especially fraught with lies. Researchers find that college students lie to their mothers in one out of two conversations. We're not talking little white lies, here. We are talking about actually misleading someone, deliberately conveying a false impression.

Runners up in the lying game are dating couples. They lie to each other in about a third of their interactions—about past relationships and about current indiscretions.

Married couples lie less frequently to each other. But their lies tend to be big ones involving deep betrayals of trust: "No, we're just friends."

To understand why someone lies, you have to consider what lying does for the person. Experts say that it generally has to do with self-esteem; people lie because they aren't happy with themselves. They want to be seen as more exciting people; they want to be loved. They need more friends.

If your niece is very young and she lies, it may be a sign that she needs more attention from her parents or caregivers. Kids may resort to lying when a new sibling is born or when parents seem distracted by their own problems. It could also be a signal that something is going on in school that needs remedying.

It's wise for a parent to ask a child what's going on. It could be as simple a conversation as: "Tell me about some things that happen in your day that you like," followed by, "Now tell me about things that happen to you that you don't like." That's generally a good way for adults to get helpful information without making the child feel ashamed about her lying.

If your niece is older and concocts fabulous stories, perhaps her work and other aspects of her life need to be more challenging. It may be that she feels overly constrained by rules and regulations or a situation that deprives her of stimulation and experience. Under enough pressure, almost anyone will lie, researchers find.

Most people who lie are not entirely comfortable doing so. They report that the conversations in which they lied were not as pleasant or intimate as truthful encounters. But the mental distress felt from being untruthful doesn't last long.