Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Why Do People Lie?

White lies, strategic lies, and alternative facts.

“Have you weighed yourself since we got back?” my wife asked.

“No,” I lied.

“Yes you have. You’re lying.” She was right. I had been on a diet before heading off on vacation, with all the intention of at least maintaining my weight but I had put back three pounds. So I lied. And my best friend since 1978 knew I had.

“I’ve never lied to you,” I lied again.

A gentle smile emerged, paired with a barely creased forehead that had slightly tugged up her eyebrows. Combined with the casual tilt of her head this picture was indeed worth a thousand words, distilled down to two, “Oh yeah?” And we both laughed.

Why did I lie? How did my wife know I was lying? How did I then know, based on her expression, that I knew she knew I was lying?

Being untruthful about the three pounds I had put back on was not hurting my wife, although it could have an influence on our relationship if I’d been seriously lying. As we both laughed I admitted I had weighed myself, felt ashamed, embarrassed, and mad at myself for not being able to maintain those first few enthusiastic days, and succumbing to culinary temptation. This “white lie” was told so that I would remain esteemed in my wife’s eyes and she knew that. So instead of becoming angry, my wife congratulated me on only putting on three, and encouraged me to not give up but keep up my quest to lose weight.

Two basic types of lying: white and strategic

In general, there are two types of lies. A ‘white lie” is one we make to maintain our social status. We lie to preserve an image of ourselves, just as I lied to my wife about my weight.

In another example one early morning I heard yelling from the kitchen. I went downstairs to find my three year old son had snuck into the walk-in pantry and climbed up onto the counter. Milano cookies were scattered on the shelf floor, each pulled apart into its two white halves. My three year old was screaming in fright, terrified and harassed by an intrigued and dive-bombing honey bee attracted to the coating of chocolate that dappled my child's face. The bee buzzed around the chocolate streaks that were concentrated around my boy’s mouth, then flit to his cheeks, forehead, hands and pajamas where the chocolate had migrated in a sure and steady trail.

After shooing the bee out the pantry and through an open window in the kitchen, I gently lifted my son off the ledge on which he had been trapped, and asked if he had been licking the chocolate off the coated cookies.

“Oh no, Dad,” he said to me in all seriousness. “Not me. I would never do that!”

His face was covered in chocolate. His Theory of Mind was developed enough to know that I was not going to be happy that he had taken cookies without permission. So he lied. He wanted me to see him a certain way; as a good and obedient boy, a person of value. He knew he was not meant to eat the cookies without permission, or he would not have snuck into the kitchen to begin with. But the urge was overwhelming, and he transgressed, taking the calculated risk of being caught, never anticipating the honey bee.

Being so young his Theory of Mind was only partially developed and he could not appreciate that I could see the evidence of cookie eating as plain as the chocolate speckled nose on his face. He had literally been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. But despite his stealing the cookies, from my perspective no harm had been done to me. To our relationship perhaps, as now I recognized my son’s I-M had changed, and he was old enough to lie.

As stealing in general is not an action condoned in society, people go to great lengths to conceal stealing, and will very often lie if confronted. My three year son had just demonstrated his ability to discern the difference between a socially condoned act and one that is not condoned. I wish I had been quick enough on my feet to use that as a teaching moment about stealing and lying in general, but readers may want to consider this story the next time they catch their kid, or anyone, with their hand in the cookie jar.

Many journalists have avoided accusing President Trump of lying. The new administration has coined the term “alternative facts”. The great 1950 Japanese jidaigeki film directed by Akira Kurosawa, Rashomon, depicted the different perspectives of four people who all saw the same thing but interpreted them different ways. None of them were really lying, just interpreting the same information in different ways.

But many of us are now faced with trying to figure out if these are white lies or strategic lies where one person or group tries to deceive another person or group for personal gain. How do you know who to trust? Without trust you or the other person is probably going to walk away. Only if trust is given will the interaction potentially turn into an exchange- be it in commerce, employment, a date with a potential mate, who you vote for, all the way even to a peace treaty between countries. I will return to these darker lies in another blog.

It's an I-M thing.

Joseph Shrand The I-M Approach
Source: Joseph Shrand The I-M Approach


Shrand, J., with Devine, L. "Do You Really Get Me?" (2015) Hazelden Press