Over the past couple of weeks, a few articles about lying and deception have crossed my desk. I took this as a message that I should do a little research on the subject.
The cover story of the June 2017 issue of National Geographic is "Why We Lie: The Science Behind Our Complicated Relationship with the Truth." It uncovers the facts and science behind lying. Author Yudhijit Bhattacharjee reports that most of us are adept at lying, and many of us can easily make up both small and large lies. He writes that lying is considered a developmental milestone, like walking or talking, and that kids get better at lying as they get older. Bhattacharjee suggests that the ability to lie is often connected to a sense of sophistication and the ability to put oneself into someone else’s shoes. However, interestingly enough, in our more senior years, we tend to lie less because we care less about what others think.
There are many reasons people lie: to inflate their images, to cover up bad behavior, to gain financially, to humor people, to hurt or help others, to be socially correct, or to avoid punishment or censure. In some cases, lying becomes pathological. According to a study by Serota, Levine, and Boster (2010), prolific liars are most likely those who have an honest demeanor; similarly, “unusually transparent liars avoid lying” (p. 22).
One of the first quantitative studies of lying was conducted by social psychologist Bella DePaulo. She studied 147 people between the ages of 18 and 71 who kept a diary of all the lies they told over the course of a week. The results showed that those who lied did so an average of one or two times a day, and most of the lies were told to hide inadequacies or protect someone else’s feelings.
DePaulo found that those most likely to lie were extroverted individuals who cared about what others thought; also, they were sociable, self-confident, and physically attractive. According to her findings, these people lied because they wanted to make a good impression on others and flatter them. Her studies showed that those who lie more often are more manipulative and irresponsible than others. She also believes that “everyday lies are really a part of the fabric of social life.”
In her research, DePaulo (2011) identified two main types of lies—self-serving and kind-hearted. Self-serving lies spare liars embarrassment and make them feel better. Kind-hearted lies are told to make others look or feel better; they are told from the heart.
There’s no doubt that some people are better liars than others, and that most of us know our capacity for being “good” liars. I am generally an unskilled liar because my face is expressive, giving immediate clues to my dishonesty, and I also have an unreliable memory.
In ordinary life, we can’t give polygraph tests to the people we meet, but we can be aware of certain behaviors and characteristics that tell us that others may be lying, such as:
Bhattacharjee, Y. (2017). “Why We Lie.” National Geographic. pp. 30–51.
DePaulo, B.M. (2004). “The Many Faces of Lies.” In A. G. Miller (Ed.) (2004). The Social Psychology of Good and Evil. New York: Guilford Press. Chapter 12, pp. 303–326.
DePaulo, B.M. (2011). “Who Lies.” Psychology Today. September 6.
Kornet, A. (1997). “The Truth About Lying.” Psychology Today.
Serota, K. B., T. R. Levin & F. J. Boster (2010). “The Prevalence of Lying in America: Three Studies of Self-Reported Lies.” Human Communication Research. (36). pp. 2–25.