The Ordinary Lies We All Tell, and What's Behind Them

Get in touch with the emotions that prompt even your most innocent white lies

Posted Nov 26, 2013

It’s been said that everybody lies, and psychologists now have extensive evidence to support that claim. At one point or another in your life, there have most likely been small or even large lies that you’ve told because it seemed like the right thing to do at the time. However, if you’re like most people, you prefer to see yourself as generally upright and honest. You certainly expect honesty out of the people you know. Why would you threaten your own self-concept, not to mention your relationships with others, by failing to live up that standard of honesty?

There are certainly many objective reasons to lie, depending on the circumstances. You’d like to get out of a speeding ticket so you claim that you weren’t going the speed clocked on the officer’s radar detector (good luck with that!). To get a job that you want, you pad your resume just ever so slightly, perhaps adding nonexistent job titles or extending the years of employment a bit to look like you worked there longer. On an online dating site, you adjust your age, height, and weight in order to conform more closely to the idealized image you’d like to portray. A neighbor heading out of town asks you to pick up the mail and you fib that you’ll be away also. You love the gift your cousin got you, even as you try to figure out whether you can return it. You're late for an assignment or a meeting, and instead of admitting to the truth, you concoct an elaborate excuse involving a relative, a pet, a friend, the weather, or some combination of the above.

Most of these scenarios don’t seem to be that outrageous but if you get caught in the lie, they can have unfortunate consequences in your relationships with other people. Lies can also have a negative impact on your view of yourself. Even little lies take some of the shine off your self-image as wholesome, moral, and upstanding.

As pointed out in a 2013 publication on deception in negotiations, Joseph Gaspar of Rutgers University and Maurice Schweitzer of the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School, most studies of deception look at cognitive and motivational causes such as how much people stand to gain (or lose) from their lying behavior. Instead, these authors maintain, it’s just as important to look at the emotional basis of deception. In other words, what emotions lead us to lie, and what emotions do we feel after we lie? According to their Emotion Deception Model, your thoughts before, during, and after the lie are important but just as important are your feelings. 

Some of your feelings when you're lying may have nothing to do with the current situation at all.  You’re feeling mildly annoyed about something, perhaps not even something you’re conscious of, and when someone asks you to do a favor (such as picking up that mail), you think that your annoyance has to do with the request for the favor. You think “How do I feel about doing this?” and since you’re annoyed already about something else (again, without recognizing it as such), you come up with the lie. You think it’s the request for the favor that annoys you, but under other circumstances, you may have cheerfully agreed to the request. In fact, it would probably have been in your best interests to do so, because then you could ask your neighbor to do the same for you when you have to be away for more than a few days.

Let’s say that you’re in a perfectly good mood, and that nothing lurks below the surface to cause a lie to come bursting out of your mouth. According to Gaspar and Schweitzer, an interpersonal situation itself can produce negative emotions that prompt the lie. A friend talking about how much weight she intentionally lost by dieting stimulates you to feel envious, because this is a goal you were hoping to achieve as well. Your feeling of envy, which is specific to the situation, now leads you to blurt out the palpable untruth that you’ve lost even more weight. Only after you’ve uttered this ridiculous pronouncement do you realize how foolish it was. Nevertheless, in the moment, it was envy caused by what psychologists call “upward social comparison” (seeing someone as better off than you) that led to the lie. You can imagine a similar situation occurring in other domains as well—whether grades in school (of yourself or your children), salary, cost of your home, or receiving some kind of honor or award. 

As Gaspar and Schweitzer point out, you may also be egged on to lie by the emotion displayed by the person you’re lying to. If your exaggerated claims are met with admiration, you’ll only be tempted to go further. Having a gullible person to talk to is like emotional fodder for the white liar.

The feelings you have in the moment, whether positive or negative, can influence whether or not you lie. In addition, the feelings you think you’ll have after you commit the lie also must be added to the equation. If you think you’ll feel better after you lie about being smarter, thinner, richer, or a better parent, the lie will fall more easily from your lips. However, if you think you’ll feel much worse, perhaps by being caught, you’ll restrain yourself. 

The problem with anticipated emotional consequences of lying is that they can be wrong. You might think you’ll be happier after telling your lie (thinking you’ll get the job), but when you’re caught, you feel significantly worse for having it snatched from your grasp. Unless you’re a psychopath who can’t learn from experience, the next time you’re presented with a choice of telling the truth or lying, you’ll conjure up the sadness, guilt or remorse you felt and go for the truthful response.

On the other hand, let’s say you put those inaccurate years of employment on your resume, no one finds out, and you get the job. Now you feel pretty good about having gotten away with the deception. This phenomenon is called cheater’s high. It turns out to be pretty elating to know that you could pull off your little deception and suffer no ill consequences.

In research that Gaspar and Schweitzer cited, people who behaved dishonestly (and didn’t get caught) felt better than people who behaved honestly. The problem, of course, is that someday you may very well get caught either because your lies are becoming so extreme or because someone does some fact-checking. Even if you don’t feel a teeny bit guilty, you’ll definitely suffer some type of loss, even if only loss of trust from the people closest to you.

Now that you understand the emotional causes and consequences of lying, you may have a better sense of how to keep your lies to a minimum. However, what can you do to avoid being lied to? According to Gaspar and Schweitzer, you might think that if there’s something you want from someone, it’s best to meet in person so he or she will comply with your request. Don’t just email, you figure; instead, go see that neighbor and ask for the mail pick-up service. However, a liar will use your emotional reactions to his or her advantage and tell lies that are even more convincing.  Unethical leaders who engage in lie after lie have perfected the art of the undetected deception.

In business negotiations, the topic of Gaspar and Schweitzer’s article, the causes and consequences of lying may differ from those that occur in romantic relationships between close partners who’ve known each other for years. People who know you well can most likely spot the behavioral signs that you’re making something up or covering up some piece of bad behavior. But that might not always happen. Your partner may prefer not to know the truth, and so collude in the cover-up.

To sum up, it would be great to conclude that once informed about the nature of lying, neither you nor the people you know will ever lie again. However, even as we recognize that lying is bad, and bad for us, our emotions can still get in the way and keep us from being 100% truthful 100% of the time. By recognizing the feelings you have before and after you lie, you may eventually find yourself lying less and enjoying your relationships more.

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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013 


Gaspar, J. P., & Schweitzer, M. E. (2013). The emotion deception model: A review of deception in negotiation and the role of emotion in deception. Negotiation and Conflict Management Research, 6, 160-179. doi: 10.1111/ncmr.12010