Why We Lie

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We all lie, all the time. It causes problems, to say the least. So why do we do it?

It boils down to the shifting sands of the self and trying to look good both to ourselves and others, experts say.

"It's tied in with self-esteem," says University of Massachusetts psychologist Robert Feldman. "We find that as soon as people feel that their self-esteem is threatened, they immediately begin to lie at higher levels."

Not all lies are harmful. In fact, sometimes lying is the best approach for protecting privacy and ourselves and others from malice, some researchers say. Some deception, such as boasting and lies in the name of tact and politeness, can be classified as less than serious. But bald-faced lies (whether they involve leaving out the truth or putting in something false), are harmful, as they corrode trust and intimacy—the glue of society.

Kidding yourself

Many animals engage in deception, or deliberately misleading another, but only humans are wired to deceive both themselves and others, researchers say. People are so engaged in managing how others perceive them that they are often unable to separate truth from fiction in their own minds, Feldman's research shows.

For instance, In one experiment, Feldman put two strangers in a room together. They were videotaped while they conversed. Later, independently, each was asked to view the tape and identify anything they had said that was not entirely accurate.

Rather than defining what counts as a lie and to avoid the moral tone of the word "lie," Feldman's experimenters simply asked subjects after the fact to identify anything they had said in the video that was "not entirely accurate."

Initially, "Each subject said, 'Oh, I was entirely accurate,'" Feldman told LiveScience. Upon watching themselves on video, subjects were genuinely surprised to discover they had said something inaccurate. The lies ranged from pretending to like someone they actually disliked to falsely claiming to be the star of a rock band.

The study, published in the Journal of Basic and Applied Psychology, found that 60 percent of people had lied at least once during the 10-minute conversation, saying an average of 2.92 inaccurate things.

"People almost lie reflexively," Feldman says. "They don't think about it as part of their normal social discourse." But it is, the research showed.

"We're trying not so much to impress other people but to maintain a view of ourselves that is consistent with the way they would like us to be," Feldman said. We want to be agreeable, to make the social situation smoother or easier, and to avoid insulting others through disagreement or discord.

Men lie no more than women, but they tend to lie to make themselves look better, while women are more likely to lie to make the other person feel better.

Extroverts tend to lie more than introverts, Feldman found in similar research involving a job-interview situation.

Workplace lies

Other research has delved into prevarication in the workplace.

Self-esteem and threats to our sense of self are also drivers when it comes to lying to co-workers, rather than strangers, says Jennifer Argo of the University of Alberta.

A recent study she co-authored showed that people are even more willing to lie to coworkers than they are to strangers.

"We want to both look good when we are in the company of others (especially people we care about), and we want to protect our self-worth," Argo told LiveScience.

The experiment involved reading a scenario to a subject, telling them they had paid more than a coworker for the same new car. When the coworker, in the scenario, mentioned what they had paid, $200 or $2,000 more in different versions of the experiment, the subject was asked to report how they would respond.

Argo found that her subjects were more willing to lie when the price difference was small and when they were talking to a coworker rather than to a stranger.

Consumers lie to protect their public and private selves, she wrote in the Journal of Consumer Research with her colleagues from the University of Calgary and University of British Columbia.

Argo said she was surprised that people are so willing to lie to someone they know even over a small price discrepancy.

"I guess closely tied to this is that people appear to be short-term focused when they decide to deceive someone—save my self-image and self-worth now, but later on if the deceived individual finds out it can have long-term consequences," she said.

Feldman says people should become more aware of the extent to which we tend to lie and that honesty yields more genuine relationships and trust. "The default ought to be to be honest and accurate ... We're better off if honesty is the norm. It's like the old saying: honesty is the best policy."

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Robin Lloyd

Robin Lloyd was a senior editor at Space.com and Live Science from 2007 to 2009. She holds a B.A. degree in sociology from Smith College and a Ph.D. and M.A. degree in sociology from the University of California at Santa Barbara. She is currently a freelance science writer based in New York City and a contributing editor at Scientific American, as well as an adjunct professor at New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program.