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Why Being Lied to Hurts Us So Much

Plus, four ways to restore your trust.

Andrzej Wilusz/Shutterstock
Source: Andrzej Wilusz/Shutterstock

At some point in life, everyone is the victim of a lie. Whether we’ve been dealt a lie by a spouse or partner who’s caught out in a fake excuse or the head of a global banking firm who’s stolen from millions of investors, the horrible feeling of distrust is the same. Our faith is shattered and the next time around, we find it harder to trust.

According to emotion expert Paul Ekman, a lie involves two factors: intent and lack of notification of the other person.

In other words, liars make a deliberate choice to fabricate the truth and do not let others know that they are doing this. There are lies, and there are lies. According to psychologist Bella DePaulo, we tell white lies to avoid hurting someone or to avoid conflict. Often these white lies backfire, as when we’re found out, we look worse than we would have by telling the truth.

White lies can also build on themselves, leading to bigger lies that people tell to cover up their smaller ones. By telling lie after lie, we eventually can suffer from building a false version of reality that increasingly distances us from our real selves. After repeatedly lying about the same thing, we may even come to believe it is true.

It seems that we constantly hear about some pop celebrity or athlete who is caught in a lie, but too often the net of suspicion does form around a politician. Most recently, Representative Paul Ryan, the 2012 Republican nominee for Vice President, claimed to have completed a marathon in under three hours. It wasn’t long before Runner’s World magazine reported that Ryan had once run a marathon, but his time was just over four hours. We have come to expect politicians to lie on the campaign trail, not on the runner’s trail. The sad fact is that politicians lie so much now that we need a "Pants on Fire" rating to determine just how far off there are in their claims and counter-claims.

What are the psychological effects of being lied to by our leaders? When lying becomes part of not only corporate, but political culture, what happens to our ability to have faith in our system and its leaders? What are children learning when they’re exposed to liars on a world-class scale? When 125 Harvard students were found to have cheated on a take-home exam, is this just another symptom of a society that plays fast and loose with the truth?

To test the impact of a leader’s lying on feelings of trust and strength of commitment to a social organization, University of Oklahoma psychologist Jennifer Griffith and colleagues (2011) asked undergraduate participants to rate a fictional boss who sent an email to employees regarding company policies toward working over the holidays. In one condition, the boss lied, and in the other, the boss told the truth. This manipulation allowed Griffith and her team to test the effect of deception on how much participants said they would trust this boss. Simulating many real-life corporate deceptions, Griffith and colleagues also tested whether employees felt differently about their lying boss when either (a) the company stood to gain by the lie or (b) only the boss benefited. The thinking was that if the boss lied to benefit the company, employees would feel less likely to feel negatively about the boss.

As predicted, participants were less likely to trust the boss who lied to them. When the boss lied for personal gain, rather than to benefit the company, participants were most likely to distrust the boss and least likely to feel committed to the company. In other employees dislike and distrust a deceitful boss, especially when the actions of the boss only lead to personal gain.

The underlying model that Griffith and her team tested bears strong connections to the way that people feel about their political leaders. The leader-member exchange (LMX) model proposes that, as the name implies, the quality of relationships between members and leaders works in two directions. The more that members feel connected to their leaders, the better the system works. Members feel better about their leaders when they see them as ethical, honest, good at interpersonal relationships, consistent, and fair. If members and leaders don’t have mutual respect and trust, the workers will ultimately be turned off from feeling committed both to their leaders and their organizations.

The LMX model readily fits the relations between voters and their political leaders. Politicians may be temporarily forced to lie to protect, for example, national security. They may not be able to reveal everything until a crisis recedes, at which point the voters expect to hear the truth. However, if politicians lie because they’re trying to protect their own interests or special interest groups, the average voter (who doesn’t benefit from this) feels betrayed. The LMX model predicts that in any organization, some people have greater access to the leaders than do others. The members who don’t are most likely to feel turned off and mistrustful. In order to avoid alienating them, leaders must take special care to be as fair, honest, and ethical as possible.

The moral of the story, if I may use that term, is that when people in positions of power lie, you not only become disaffected with them but you become disaffected with the institutions they represent. Each time this happens, your identity and well-being take a new hit. Identification with our jobs and our government are crucial to our self-concepts. As we lose faith in them, we lose faith in ourselves.

How can you keep the faith when someone’s lied to you? Whether it’s a lover, a close friend, an acquaintance, your boss, or your political leader, there are ways you can preserve your ability to trust. The LMX model gives us these suggestions:

  1. Find someone you can admire. OK, so this person let you down. The LMX model says that respect is a key part of your ability to identify with your superiors. You’ll feel better and become more productive in life if you can find someone else to latch onto whose integrity is without question.
  2. Look for people who make you feel good. Positive affect (“feeling good”) is a second dimension of the LMX model. Hanging around people who broke their vows to you can only build resentment. The liar may be someone you can’t avoid, but don’t let that person make you feel miserable. Seek out people you not only admire but who you actually like.
  3. Give your trust to those who will actually defend you. The Griffith et al. study showed that employees who are lied to lose their sense of trust. A good supervisor, politician, friend, and lover inspire your loyalty. Minimize your dealings with the dishonest ones because when push comes to shove, they’ll put their interests over yours.
  4. Seek out those you respect. We want to work harder for people who we believe are competent, knowledgeable, and professional. You maximize your own productivity and success when you have faith that your leaders know what they’re doing.

The Griffith et al. study wasn’t perfect, in that the participants were college students and not actual employees of an organization (though many of them had long work histories). The researchers did not, in fact, examine identification with political leaders. However, the LMX model is a great way to understand identification with political leaders, into whose hands we place our future when a majority of us vote for them.

It would be great if no politician, friend, lover, or boss ever lied to us. However, when they do, find ways to keep your trust alive, and you’ll feel better about yourself and your future.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, 2012

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo and follow my Facebook group, Fulfillment at Any Age.


Griffith, J. A., Connelly, S., & Thiel, C. E. (2011). Leader deception influences on leader-member exchange and subordinate organizational commitment. Journal Of Leadership & Organizational Studies, 18(4), 508-521. doi:10.1177/1548051811403765

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