Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Incentivizing Lying

Lying is easier, and many prefer it. But is it who you want to be?

I write a good deal about self-deception. This post, however, will focus on the deception of others. Most people abhor deception. Yet, to some extent, everyone does it. A study indicated most subjects lied on average one or two times a day (Bhattacharjee, Y., 2017). It seems dishonesty has become more prevalent, and perhaps more tolerated.

Nine years ago I wrote on my personal blog about dishonesty (Dishonesty and “I Love You Man”). I had recently caught two students cheating on an exam. It was the first time that had happened (I had only been teaching a year or so at the time). In the time since, I’ve caught students cheating numerous times, sometimes averaging once a semester. This doesn’t even include the times students have approached me to report, after nothing can be done, that they witnessed peers cheating.

One student who was reported for cheating fought it. Because the only evidence was a witness, the student was relieved of any wrong-doing. Herein lies one theory for why deception has become more prevalent, that the deception is rarely caught, and when it is the punishment is rarely harsh (Pérez-Peña, R., 2012). This is one way that dishonesty is incentivized.

Most of my readers have likely noticed how deception has gone unpunished. It occurs regularly in the media, politics, and business. An individual or a company is outed for deception, there is public outcry, and in no time the transgression is forgotten, and the public is on to a different topic. Banks that deceived during the housing crisis still flourish, and Volkswagen sales are rebounding after it admitted to deceptive software in diesel cars reported they were polluting less than they were (Boudette, N., 2017). Facebook stocks rose despite leaking users’ information, and admitting it has information even on non-users (Volz, D., Ingram D., 2018). Although some in the examples above faced strict penalties, the public, which is where the company’s income derives, seems quick to forgive and forget.

At the same time deception seems to have reducing repercussions, the cost for being honest rises. I’ve written about how people prefer to be lied to, though rarely admitting it ( The Big Lie ). In his book, “Modern Romance” Aziz Ansari states based on his experience researching the book that when it comes to being rejected, we’d all rather be lied to then hear the truth (p. 67).

So, I posit the conclusion that deception has been incentivized. This may be a harsh pill to swallow for some. On one hand, we all lie, and to some extent and at certain times, unconsciously prefer to be lied to. On the other hand, consciously, we abhor being deceived. At the same time, lying is rarely caught and punished less harshly. Honesty is often perceived as being rude, harsh, or blunt, and derogatory, vulgar names attached to those who are so. So, what is one to do?

This dilemma comes down to what I perceive as the battle between behaviorism and conditioning, and the existential ideal of exercising freedom and behaving in good faith. The rewards are there for lying. The most common reasons people lie are to cover up a misdeed and thereby save face, gain financially or otherwise, or avoid or escape others (Bhattacharjee, Y., 2017). Lies are rarely caught or confronted. In simple behaviorism, deceiving is often reinforcing. There are even studies that show the more we lie, the easier it gets. This is because the brain’s reaction which may initially cause discomfort (guilt) weakens as one continues to lie (Bhattacharjee, Y., 2017 paragraph 29). The behavior of lying is rewarded through the gains.

Existentialism, on the other hand, exalts people to rise above their conditioning and exercise the freedom they have to behave in moral ways. This requires going beyond simple behaviorism, looking past what is easiest or reaps the most rewards, to being the person you want to be. This takes conscious effort, discipline, and commitment.

We are, though we hate to see it, animals. Conditioning is how many of our habits, good and bad, have been formed. We are also animals with consciousness. We can rise above conditioning and create the life we want and the person we want to be . Deception may be tempting, as it has been incentivized. One may need to incentivize being a person of her own design, rather than one designed by society, culture, and those around you.

Copyright William Berry, 2018


Bhattacharjee, Y., 2017, Why We Lie: The Science Behind Our Deceptive Ways, National Geographic, Paragraph 10, retrieved from: on 4/10/18.

Boudette, N., 2017, Volkswagen Sales in U.S. Rebound After Diesel Scandal, New York Times, retrieved from: on 4.15/18.

Pérez-Peña, R., 2012, Studies Find More Students Cheating, With High Achievers No Exception, New York Times, retrieved from on 4/10/18.

Volz, D., Ingram D., 2018, Facebook's Zuckerberg unscathed by congressional grilling, stock rises, Reuters Business News, Retrieved from: on 4/15/18.