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Why Do People Lie?

People tend to lie to gain advantage for themselves or others.

Key points

  • Lying can be harmful because, when discovered, it erodes trust, which greatly complicates interpersonal relationships
  • In some cases, such as when angry, a white lie might be the best option to spare someone's feelings until you can return to speaking calmly.
  • Children should learn that the benefits of white lies, used to spare someone's feelings, do not make all lying acceptable.
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As they develop, most children learn to lie, which can be defined as communicating with an intent to deceive. This often begins in the preschool years and increases with age (Stouthamer-Loeber, 1986). As part of my counseling practice, parents sometimes express concern about their children’s propensity to lie. This leads to a discussion of the different types of lies.

Lying for Ourselves

There are many situations in which we might lie to protect ourselves:

We might lie to avoid punishment. For example, children often lie about whether they have completed their homework. If they tell the truth, their parents might insist that the homework be done immediately, which could preclude their participation in a recreational activity.

We might lie to prevent ourselves from being embarrassed about behavior we regret or because we don’t want to reveal private information that might be used against us. We may worry that public awareness of such information can cause us stress or anxiety.

We might lie to avoid conflict. For example, a spouse may choose not to tell the truth about how they feel about their spouse’s behavior for fear that an uncomfortable disagreement might arise.

We might lie to gain social acceptance from a particular group. For example, we might feign interest in a subject matter to join a group that extols that subject. Or, we could post partial truths or fabrications on social media to become popular.

We might lie to get ahead in a competition or business. For example, a businessman might falsely claim great success in the past to secure a new business interest. Such lies can also make us feel better about ourselves when others believe us. Similarly, we might lie in a relationship to maintain control. For example, we might falsely state that we have brought a lot of money into a partnership.

Young children sometimes lie because they confuse reality and their imagination, which can include wishful thinking.

Lying for Others

Sometimes, people lie to protect others:

We might lie about something to spare the feelings of someone else. For example, we might not tell a friend how we really feel about their new appearance. Or, a parent might lie to a young child about the death of a pet. Such harmless lies can be thought of as “white lies.”

We might lie about an illegal activity undertaken by a friend so that the friend does not suffer from negative consequences. This would not be considered a white lie, as harm could ensue because the friend is deprived of the opportunity to learn from the consequences of their actions, and the potential victim of an illegal activity might have a decreased chance for recovery.

Is lying always wrong?

Lying can be harmful because, when discovered, it erodes trust, which greatly complicates interpersonal relationships. A liar can face loss of credibility or embarrassment. When lying circumvents dealing with the consequences of a bad decision, the liar fails to learn how to make better choices in the future. Further, guilt arising from lying can affect mental health adversely. Lying can hurt others, such as when the liar gains an unfair advantage. On a societal level, lying can lead to a breakdown in cooperation between individuals or groups and, thus, even to social unrest.

In some cases, however, the best course of action might involve telling a white lie to spare the feelings of another individual. If lying to ourselves allows us to be more functional, this might also be considered a good choice. For example, if our anger at a situation might stop us in our tracks, depending on the situation, perhaps it is better to pretend for a while that we are not angry. In time, our anger might dissipate even if we don’t deal with it, while in other circumstances, it would behoove us to deal with the source of the anger ultimately, but in a calmer way than if we dealt with it when the anger first flared. (An even better strategy might be to learn to think in a way that prevents anger in the first place.)

Lying and the Subconscious

Another example of helpful lying occurs at the subconscious level. Our subconscious lies to us all of the time to make our lives easier to manage. For example, when someone mumbles a word, our subconscious often prompts us to think we heard the correct word even though it was not uttered.

When we recall events, our subconscious typically populates our memory with images likely to have occurred during the events rather than the actual images. This may be because it may take up too much brain space to remember events in great detail. Instead, our brains store only some important information about the events and later fill in the rest, representing a lie for the sake of efficiency.

Our subconscious filters out what appears to be irrelevant information and thus lies by omission. For example, until this sentence is read, the reader may not have been aware of the pressure of their shoe on their foot. This is because the subconscious does not allow us to become aware of all our sensations at any moment. After all, this could overwhelm us with information, such as what occurs in the case of some people with autism. When they experience difficulty filtering out input from multiple sensations and thoughts, it can cause them to become agitated or shut down.

In my work with patients’ subconscious, I have observed that the subconscious can withhold information or even lie to protect the conscious from dealing with issues it is not yet capable of dealing with effectively. In psychology, “denial” is a term used to describe how we can act as if something is not true to cope better. Such denial likely arises at the subconscious level. For example, we might deny that we are sad about a situation because it might be difficult to cope with feelings of sadness.

Lying that originates from the subconscious can lead to the conscious expression of falsehoods. For example, our subconscious can present us with an inaccurate reconstructed memory. When we believe and talk about the memory as being accurate, we are saying something false without intending to lie.

While the aforementioned subconscious actions are usually helpful, they nonetheless fall into the category of lying as they involve deception, albeit self-deception. However, perhaps we ought to redefine lying as conscious communication with the intent to deceive, while lying originating from the subconscious could be renamed adaptive restructuring or something to that effect.


It is important to teach children the difference between lying that is potentially hurtful to themselves or others and lying that can be helpful. In this way, children can understand how the benefits of white lies or adaptive restructuring do not mean that all lying is acceptable.

Further, when children lie in an antisocial manner, it may be better to discuss how they could do better rather than punish them. In the latter case, children may learn to avoid lying to stay out of trouble rather than because they have developed an understanding regarding the value of the truth.


Stouthamer-Loeber M. Lying as a problem behavior in children: A review. Clinical Psychology Review. Published online January 1986:267-289. doi:10.1016/0272-7358(86)90002-4

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