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Deception refers to the act—big or small, cruel or kind—of encouraging people to believe information that is not true. Lying is a common form of deception—stating something known to be untrue with the intent to deceive.

While most people are generally honest, even those who subscribe to honesty engage in deception sometimes. Studies show that the average person lies several times a day. Some of those lies are big (“I’ve never cheated on you!”) but more often, they are little white lies (“That dress looks fine”) deployed to avoid uncomfortable situations or spare someone's feelings.

Trust is the bedrock of social life at all levels, from romance and parenting to national government. Deception always undermines it. Because truth is so essential to the human enterprise, which relies on a shared view of reality, the default assumption most people have is that others are truthful in their communications and dealings. Most cultures have powerful social sanctions against lying.

The Many Forms of Deception
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There are sins of commission and sins of omission; omitting information and concealing the truth are considered lies when they are done with an intent to deceive. In addition to statements that are false, deception encompasses statements that misrepresent or distort facts as well as the withholding of information. People can lie through outright statements or by strategic silence.

What kinds of lies do people tell?

People may deliberately create false information or fabricate a story. But most often, sheer invention is not the soul of lying. Rather, people deceive by omitting information, denying the truth, or exaggerating information. Or they might agree with others when in fact they don’t, in order to preserve a relationship. Self-serving lies, on the other hand, help liars get what they want, make them look better, or spare them blame or embarrassment.

How do I lie to myself?

Deception isn’t always an outward-facing act. There are also the lies people tell themselves, for reasons ranging from maintenance of self-esteem to serious delusions beyond their control. While lying to oneself is generally perceived as harmful, some experts argue that certain kinds of self-deception—like believing one can accomplish a difficult goal even if evidence exists to the contrary—can have a positive effect on overall well-being.

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How to Spot Deception

Researchers have long searched for ways to definitively detect when someone is lying. They know that some people are better at lying than others; their visual and verbal cues are in sync with what they are saying. But studies consistently show that most people are terrible at detecting deception, performing no better than chance. There’s evidence that many people have inaccurate beliefs about signals of lying—for example, that fidgeting is always a giveaway.

How do I know when I’m being lied to?

Many experts propose that liars reveal themselves in "tells," major and minor changes in body language or facial expressions. But observable signs of lying can be unreliable. Researchers do find that some people lie more than others. Studies show that children under two never lie and that lying peaks in adolescence, when social relationships take on heightened importance.

How do I know when I’m lying to myself?

Most people are not aware of the ways they fool themselves. But psychologist have identified many signals of self-deception. Outsize emotional reactions to present situations, behavior that is out of step with who you claim or aim to be can be indicators that we believe things about ourselves that are false or fail to believe things that are true.

Why People Engage in Deception

According to one expert, lies are like wishes—often, what is said are things people wish were true. A large body of research identifies three major reasons why people lie: to get something they want, so-called instrumental reasons; to protect or promote themselves; and to harm others. Avoiding punishment may be the main motivation for both children and adults.

While everyone lies a little, it appears that only a small percentage of people do most of the lying. There’s evidence that prolific liars share the personality trait of Machiavellianism: They are manipulative and exploitative of others; the trait is closely related to psychopathy.

Is honesty always the best policy?

Intentions matter when it comes to behavior—it’s often a deciding factor in the law—and there are times when lies can help others or shield them from harm. Sometimes lies are told to prevent difficult conversations, such as those involving critical feedback, and they may appear protective. But they can ultimately disadvantage the recipient by depriving him or her of useful information that can promote positive change.

Is deception always harmful?

Experts differ on the topic. Some believe that even white lies, told with the aim of protecting others or smoothing social relationships, are damaging because they deny people the experience of reality that could be used to improve their lives. Lies are damaging to relationships because they block intimacy. Lies are considered harmful because they destroy trust—the bedrock of society—the belief that others are dependable and intend no harm.

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