The question of why people lie is profoundly important and endlessly intriguing. Before I turned my attention to research and writing about single people and single life, I spent about two decades studying lying.
When my colleagues and I asked college students and people from the community to keep a diary of all their social interactions and all the lies they told in those interactions every day for a week, we became the first to look at lying in such a systematic way. From time immemorial, people had opined about liars and their lies without the benefit of careful data on some of the most fundamental questions about the matter — who lies, how often people lie, and why they lie.
Now there is so much research on lying that a terrific article, “Why We Lie,” is the cover story of the most recent issue of National Geographic. It takes a lot to wrest my attention away from my singles work these days, but Yudhijit Bhattacharjee’s article motivated me to look behind the door of deceit one more time.
For answers to the question of why people lie, look at the National Geographic article or some of my earlier work. In this post, I want to take on a more specific question, rarely addressed in all the other articles and books you can find on lying: Why do people lie to you?
When people lie, sometimes they are doing so because of something about them. I wrote about that in scholarly publications and in a previous post here: “Who Lies?”
Other times, there is something about you that tempts people to lie to you. That’s not necessarily a criticism; sometimes when people lie to you, it is because of your very best qualities. You don't want to change those things — you should be proud of them. But it is useful to know how your strengths can be magnets for other people’s lies.
You may, however, have other personal qualities that are not so wonderful that also tempt people to lie to you — and maybe you will want to work on some of those.
I became sensitized to the ways in which we tempt other people to lie to us when my colleagues and I asked 173 people to tell us about the most serious lie they ever told anyone or the most serious lie anyone ever told to them. You can read some of the stories in Behind the Door of Deceit: Understanding the Biggest Liars in Our Lives. Here I will just summarize the key lessons about how we tempt other people to lie to us.
Your Good Qualities that Tempt Other People to Lie to You
1. Your high regard and high expectations for the special people in your life.
We all have people in our lives who are special to us. We think highly of them. We are in their corner. That’s a wonderful feeling for those people. They know we care about them and expect the best from them.
So what’s the problem?
Our high regard is so valuable, they just don’t want to disappoint us. When they do something they are not proud of (as all humans do), we are the last person they want to tell. So they lie to us, to maintain our shiny view of them a bit longer.
2. Your high moral standards.
Do you have high moral standards? Do you try to do the right thing, even when it is difficult?
That’s a good thing.
Maybe your integrity is expressed in your actions, and you never say a word about it. Or maybe you like to talk about your high standards to make them clear to others. Parents sometimes do that when they say things like, "We don’t lie in this family” or when they express their disapproval of other people’s bad behavior.
The problem, again, is the psychology of disappointment. When other people see you as someone with high moral standards, they don’t want to admit to their own failings, not even the small ones we all share. Because you are such a good person, other people are tempted to lie to you when they are not so good themselves.
3. Your attractiveness — not just the physical kind.
We all have qualities that attract other people to us. They might include kindness or generosity or wit or wisdom or empathy or quirkiness or physical attractiveness. Anything that other people like about you is an example of your own personal attractiveness.
So why would your attractiveness tempt other people to lie to you? When other people admire you, they often want to impress you. That might mean lying to you so they seem more impressive than they really are. They admire you, and that makes them want you to admire them. If they don't think you will admire them just the way they are, they will be tempted to lie to you so you will be impressed.
4. Your status or power.
Are you someone who has high status or a position of power? Maybe you are someone's boss. Or maybe you have some say over whether another person gets a pay raise or a promotion or something else that they want. If you are a teacher, you get to decide your students' grades. Maybe you also write letters of recommendation for them.
You might also have status or power because of what you have accomplished, or who you know.
If you have power over other people, if you have control over their lives, if you have something they want, then they may be tempted to lie to you. Sometimes the lying takes the form of sucking up. They act like you're the greatest person in the world, even if they don't really believe it. Or they try to impress you by lying about their accomplishments and background. You have a say over what will happen in their lives, so they are tempted to say whatever they need to impress you, even if it is a lie.
Your Not-So-Great Qualities that Tempt Other People to Lie to You
Some of the qualities that tempt other people to lie to you are not so great. You may want to work on them, even though some are not exactly your fault. As I will explain, if you are going through a particularly bad patch, or if you have a personal style that is misinterpreted, you could end up being a magnet for other people’s lies.
5. You are a scary person.
Some people are scary. Are you one of them? Some people are scary in bad ways and on purpose — bullies, for example. But other people just have a style that can seem intimidating. They aren't trying to be mean or off-putting — it's just the way they are. Do you think you might be like that? If so, that can make it hard for other people to tell you the truth when they are worried that you might not like the truth.
6. You are in a bad place, emotionally.
Are you a vulnerable person? Are you easily hurt? Are you depressed? Maybe you are not usually a vulnerable person, but at the moment you are going through a very difficult time.
If you are in a very vulnerable place and other people know that, they may be reluctant to tell you something you might not want to hear. If they think you can't handle the truth because you are too fragile, they will be tempted to lie.
7. You really don't want to know the truth, and other people can tell that about you.
Vulnerable people aren't the only kinds of people who don't want to know the truth. Sometimes very confident and successful people don't want to know either. Powerful CEOs, for example, may make it clear from the way they act that they don’t want to hear bad news about their company. When things start to go wrong, the people who could give them a heads-up are afraid to do so. Instead, they suppress vital information, or they lie.
8. You show by example that certain truths should never be spoken.
The way you behave can tell other people whether you want to know the truth, whether you realize it or not. When you can't seem to tell the truth about certain things, you are setting an example for others.
Some parents do this in their interactions with their children, especially when something truly terrible is happening. When a grandparent or other beloved relative or friend is seriously ill, or the cherished family pet is at death's door, parents just don't want to have to tell their kids the awful news.
Parents differ in how much they protect kids from painful truths. The ones who do it all the time — even when what they are hiding is not all that awful — are setting an example. They are conveying the message, "We don't talk about difficult things in this family." When their kids grow up, sometimes they act just like their parents did. When something difficult or bad is happening in their lives, they don't tell their parents. They hide that painful reality from their parents, protecting them the way their parents once protected them.
The temptation to try to protect someone from pain — especially someone you love or someone particularly vulnerable, such as a child — is totally understandable. But what we also need to understand is how even our best instincts can, unwittingly, make us targets for deceit.