Why Do People Lie? We Asked an Expert

Here's the truth about lying.

I'd be lying if I said I hadn't told some fibs in my life.

"I wish I could go, but I'm busy" is code for "I would rather be home on my couch." And "Sorry, I forgot to reply" is really me saying "Sorry, I was avoiding you." (Part of me is hoping that admitting this doesn't totally undermine my credibility, but another part is sure that a lot of people reading this can relate.)

Those are what I consider to be white lies, or "a lie about a small or unimportant matter that someone tells to avoid hurting another person," according to Merriam-Webster. It's not that I get some kind of enjoyment out of being dishonest. I'm just being polite...right?

Well, as I learned while reporting this article, many experts would disagree. They would say my motives go beyond being courteous.

Robert Feldman, PhD, a professor of psychology at University of Massachusetts Amherst, studies "verbal deceit." He tells me the biggest reason people are dishonest is that "lying is a very effective social tactic." He adds, "People don't expect to be lied to; the expectation is that they're hearing the truth from others, and so that allows people who are lying to often get away with it."

Here, Feldman explains seven reasons why people spin the truth—from telling white lies to compulsively lying.

To flatter people

Feldman says flattery is one of the most common forms of deceit, which doesn't seem very surprising. How many times do people say "Be honest!" when you tell them you love their new haircut? People are skeptical of flattery because they know it's not always sincere. Someone may give you a false compliment to befriend you, avoid awkwardness, persuade you to do them a favor, get you to confide in them, and more.

To avoid awkwardness

This is one I'm all too familiar with, as I explained above. I mean, I have no problem telling my close friends that I would rather stay home in my pajamas than go out to a bar on a Friday night. But when it comes to people I'm not as comfortable with, I'll go with the old, "I wish I could go, but I'm busy." Feldman says lying to avoid awkwardness comes back to a want to be liked by others and to not disappoint anyone. Sounds about right.

To influence others

"People lie to get others to do what they want them to do," Feldman says. He uses the example of a salesman. For our purposes, let's say the salesman is hawking a facial cleanser. They might rave about the cleanser, saying they had acne their whole life, and nothing worked to clear it until they found this product, the holy grail of facial cleansers. It changed their life. And it can change yours. Is it true? Probably not. Is it an effective tactic? Often yes.

To avoid a negative outcome

Think of a child who broke a glass, Feldman says. When their parent asks if they broke the glass, they're probably going to say no, even though it's an obvious lie. "As we get older, we learn to be better liars," Feldman says, meaning people continue to lie to protect themselves, but it's much harder to know for sure that they're being dishonest. People will also lie to protect others, like if the child's older sibling says they saw the dog knock the glass over...even though they know it was their sibling.

To achieve a positive outcome

People may lie to get an outcome they want for themselves or others, Feldman says. Overstating experience on a resume or in a job interview is a classic way people lie to get what they want. The same goes for a person who's trying to help their friend get hired at their company. (Because who doesn't want a friend in the office?) They may overstate their friend's experience to the hiring manager, saying how successful and personable they are, to increase their chances of landing the position—and landing themselves a coworker they already get along with.

To make yourself look more impressive

"People want others to like them, to admire them, to be impressed by them," Feldman says. "In some cases, a person may even want to intimidate other people." A manager, for example, might exaggerate their previous successes to keep colleagues from challenging their decisions. And let's not forget Anna Delvey, who passed herself off as a German heiress to impress socialites and live the high life...mostly on their dime.

To maintain a previous lie

Lies have a snowball effect, Feldman says. "If you lie about something small initially, in order to maintain that lie, you sometimes have to lie in bigger and bigger ways." This is something I've seen played out in TV shows, movies, books, and even real life. No lie is too small to get you caught in a web—which is why honesty, as they say, is the best policy.

To get our top stories delivered to your inbox, sign up for the Healthy Living newsletter

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles