Why people lie?

By Raj K Johal // 28/06/20

You’d be lying if you say you have never told a lie.

We lie effortlessly, in ways big and small, whether it is to strangers, co-workers, friends, or loved ones. Our capacity for dishonesty is as essential to us as our need to trust others, which ironically makes us bad at detecting lies.

I frequently receive advice from my loved ones to not trust anyone and that you never know anyone’s intentions. But I pondered as to why I shouldn’t trust people, and why do people feel the need to lie? I could not simply agree with the generic explanations that people are just simply bad and I’m simply gullible. I believed there must be something deeper than that.. Don’t we all have the evolutionary need to be liked? To form happy fulfilling relationships? This led me to explore research and uncover the psychology beneath deceit.

What counts as a lie?

There are many different types of lies, self-serving or kind-hearted lies. People lie for many reasons, for example to inflate their image, self-protection, or to protect others. On the other hand, people may lie with the intent of making another person look better or feel better, or to spare them from embarrassment, punishment, or blame, or from getting their feelings hurt.

Research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that majority of people lie at least once or twice daily, which is as frequent as how many times people brush their teeth.

According to researchers, lying as a behaviour arose not long after the emergence of language. From an evolutionary perspective, the ability to manipulate others by lying likely conferred an advantage in the competition for resources and mates, akin to the evolution of deceptive strategies in the animal kingdom, such as camouflage.

“The truth comes naturally.. but lying takes effort and a sharp, flexible mind.” - Psychologist, Bruno Verschuere.

When and How Do We Learn How To Lie?

Lying is a part of the developmental process. A child learns to lie between ages 2 and 5 and lie the most when they are testing their independence. For example, lying to your parent/guardian about eating chocolate sneakily (I’m guilty!).

You must be wondering... if we are brought up being taught that lying is bad then at what point do we start lying?

What drives this is the Theory of Mind, which plays a major role in children’s social functioning. Psychologists refer to this as the development of a child’s ability to put himself or herself in someone else’s shoes. During this developmental stage, we acquire the ability to understand the beliefs, intentions, and knowledge of others. Once children acknowledge that other people could believe things that were different from their beliefs, they used that information strategically to tell lies. In fact, psychologists see the emergence of lying in toddlers as a reassuring sign that their cognitive development is on track. Therefore, lying is just a side-effect of an important mental ability.

Is Lying Related To Mental Health?

Though lying is a mental ability, on the other hand, some people are pathological liars, meaning that they tell excessive lies and struggle to control this behaviour. The psychological explanations are unclear, however in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (third edition), pathological lying is listed as a disorder, as well as a symptom of personality disorders like psychopathy and narcissism. This is because pathological liars have the neurological lack of empathy, which leads to these individuals not caring about the consequences of lying. In fact, they may not even realise they are lying half the time, because they're not conscious of it.

Though, there appears to be no agreement among psychiatrists regarding the relationship between mental health and lying. Regardless of the fact that people with certain psychiatric disorders seem to exhibit specific lying behaviours. Psychiatrist, Orloff the author of The Empath’s Survival Guide, tells the Business Insider that "When they lie it doesn't hurt them in the same way it would hurt us… So many people get into relationships with pathological liars, or just can't understand why they're lying, because they're trying to fit these people into the ordinary standards of what it means to be empathetic." It is important to consider that compulsive liars are not necessarily bad, they are simply lacking empathy and too impulsive to tell the truth.

How White Are Your White Lies?

Most people believe that ‘a little white lie’ isn’t technically a lie because it’s with good intention. However, some of the most common lies are white lies. They are typically used when you are trying to avoid embarrassing or hurting someone's feelings. While white lies are considered harmless and mundane lies, they are actually never harmless and never beneficial. In fact, little white lies can desensitize you, making it easier to eventually tell bigger lies. Thus, no matter how little you think a lie is, it still has negative consequences.

“the truth will cost nothing, but a lie can cost you everything.”

Using Emotional Masks To Pull Off Deceit

Masking is defined as concealing one's emotion by portraying another emotion.

Psychologist Paul Ekman, in Telling Lies, theorised that even when the lie is about something other than emotion, emotions may become involved. Any emotional expression can be forged and used to conceal any emotion. Ekman expressed that the universal emotion, smiling, is the most frequently used of the emotional masks. It functions as the opposite expression of the negative emotions, and it is also often employed as many lies require some variation or signal of happiness in hope to pull off deceit. Additionally, it is difficult to differentiate between someone else’s real smile or a falsified smile, and so a person’s authentic feelings will likely go undetected.

Negative emotions that are often concealed include: anger, anxiety, disgust, embarrassment, fear, frustration, and sadness.

Emotional masks expressed to conceal those emotions: happiness, boredom, contempt, sadness, interest, amusement, and frustration.

Masking Feelings and Mental Health

Masking your feelings will harm your mental health.

Like many people, I have had things cancelled and big changes in my life during this pandemic. Initially, I thought there are people in a much worse position than me so why should I dwell on these inconveniences? Then I received a phone call from friend, who expressed how she has been having a really difficult time but didn’t want to make a ‘big deal’ out of it because everyone else is too. That’s when I realised that most people I know were not allowing themselves to acknowledge the influence of the pandemic on their mental health. Instead, they were dismissing their feelings and problems as they believed that they weren’t important in the grand scheme of things. They thought that it seemed selfish because other people were suffering more. Just as people have gotten used to wearing a mask to protect their physical health, they have gotten used to wearing a mask to conceal their emotions. However, everyone should take the time to reflect, acknowledge stressors, and identify ways to take care of their mental health.

Behind The Mask

Wearing a mask isn’t always about dishonesty or the need to deceive. It can be about protection and self-preservation. Wearing a mask is a defence mechanism. When life around us feels out of our control, wearing a mask is sometimes a way of gaining control.

  • The ‘I’m ok’ mask – The reality is you’re not ok, and it’s ok not to be ok.
  • The ‘I’m here for you’ mask – You really need someone to be there for you. You can’t pour from an empty cup, remember to take care of yourself first.
  • The ‘I’m calm and in control’ mask – You’re feeling anxious most of the time, and that’s ok. Practice relaxation techniques, self-care and mindfulness.

The negative feelings that are concealed and buried deep within us can have a nasty way of surfacing later in life. They can come in different ways including anxiety, panic attacks, anger, and depression. Consider what it might be like to take off the mask for a few moments and tell someone that you trust what you really feel like inside. The vulnerability this requires can be quite a challenge, especially if you’re not used to it. If we continue to hide our true feelings, we prevent ourselves from getting the help and support we might need. After all, how can someone help us if they are unaware that we need help? There is no rush to dive in and leave any defence mechanisms. No need to throw away the mask straight away. Be kind to yourself and take one step at a time, then perhaps you could take off the mask for a little while and discover who is underneath.

If you are experiencing mental health problems or need support, please visit our ‘Get Support’ section on The Heera Foundation website.