The Psychology of Lying

Updated September 12, 2022
Two friends hanging out together

Look around you. The majority of people you see waiting for their mocha lattes or scanning a cartload of groceries in the self-checkout line are liars. According to research, 75% of people tell about two lies per day. This means that the majority of your family and loved ones have probably lied to you before. And you've probably told one or two fibs yourself. So why do we lie?

The psychology of lying can be a complicated concept because people lie for different reasons. Some people lie in an attempt to avoid punishment, while others might lie to avoid hurting someone else's feelings. Some people might simply lie out of impulse. In some situations we might lie for a combination of reasons.

Understanding why someone might lie may help you better understand their intentions. It might also help you to avoid lying to others and, most importantly, it might help you to spot a lie when you hear one.

10 Psychological Reasons for Lying

Everyone tells lies once in a while. However, the number and severity of the lies vary from one person to another. According to research from the University of Wisconsin-LA, there are many explanations for why people lie. The university's study examined 632 participants and the combined 116,366 lies they told over the course of 91 days. That's a pretty long list of tall tales.

The study found that, on average, 25% of participants lied more than twice a day. And, that participants in the top one percent of liars in the study told up to 17 lies per day on average. Also, the study found that 90% of lies told were considered little white lies, such as harmlessly telling someone you like a gift when you really don't.

In addition to studying how frequently participants told lies, the study also examined why the participants were lying. The participants' responses for why they told lies were broken down into nine different categories. Below are some common reasons why people lie according to the study.

To Avoid Situations

Sometimes people lie to avoid doing things that they don't want to do. For instance, have you ever been invited to a party or uncomfortable family dinner at a friend's house and not wanted to go? Of course you have, we've all been there. In this situation, you might make up an excuse. You might say that you already made plans with someone else, or you have to finish reading a certain chapter before your book club meets later in the evening and you really can't cancel on them again. People use lies as a tool to avoid people and situations that they don't really want to experience.

To Lighten the Mood

Some people enjoy a good prank. And, many people like the feeling of telling a joke that gets a lot of laughs, even if the joke is at someone else's expense. One way to lighten the mood or get these pranks going is to tell a lie.

Maybe you've told one of these lies. Have you ever told this old-school joke: "You have something on your shirt"? Then, you point to an imaginary stain on the person's chest, watch them panic, and look down at nothing, just to say "Made you look."

This scenario is technically a lie. But, it is meant to get a laugh, not necessarily just to decieve.

To Protect Themselves

Sometimes people in your life ask personal or intimate questions that you just don't want to answer. Maybe a stranger in the grocery store asks for your name, or a new crush asks you for your address to pick you up on the first date. In these situations, you might lie by giving a fake name or omitting an address in order to protect yourself.

To Protect Someone Else

Has somebody ever told you a secret that you weren't supposed to share with anyone else? If you were able to keep the secret, chances are that you might have had to lie at one point or another to prevent the information from spreading. That's because people not only lie to protect themselves, but they also do it to protect others.

Sometimes, information just isn't yours to share and you might tell a white lie or a lie by omission just to keep that information private. Although you might be lying to one person, you are also keeping another safe.

To Get Others to Like Them

People often lie in order to impress others. They might not want to disappoint someone, or they may be worried that they will be rejected if someone else learned the truth about them. A person might stretch the truth in order to sound more accomplished, increase their popularity, or make it seem like they are living a picture-perfect life.

Smiling friends taking selfie while sitting on a bench

To Gain Personal Benefits

Sometimes people lie in order to gain access to people and opportunities that improve their situation in life. For example, someone might lie on their resume and say that they have worked in publishing for 10 years when they have really only worked in the field for five. In this case, stretching the truth might help someone get a better-paying job that can help them improve their skills and provide for their family. It's a tool that people use in order to look out for their best interests.

To Gain Benefits for Others

Lying doesn't always happen for selfish reasons. In fact, sometimes people lie to help benefit others.

For example, you might fluff up a friend's resume in order to help them get hired. Or, you might exaggerate the number of paintings an artistic friend has sold in order to help them land another client. People might have their own interests at heart, but they also care about the well-being of their friends and family, and will often do what they can to help broaden maximize opportuntieis.

To Hurt Others

When someone lies to you, it can be extremely painful. Sadly, sometimes the person lying might actually want to hurt your feelings. A lie can help a person gain control over you or a situation, and it can be used to manipulate or persuade people to do and agree to things that they wouldn't normally agree to.

For example, if someone wants financial support for a project they are investing in, they might exxaggerate some information to make the deal sound more appealing. Or someone might lie about their age on a dating app in an effort to meet candidates that they might not normally connect with if they were honest about their age.

To Cover Up Previous Lies

Lies have a way of getting bigger and bigger over time. This snowball effect often happens because when one lie is told, another one might be needed in order to cover up or support the initial lie.

For example, if you lie to someone and tell them that you went skiing, they might ask you how the slopes were, if you ever fell, or what else you did while you were enjoying the cold weather. When you answer these questions, one lie can grow into a series of lies that you might not have even planned for. Before you know it, you might be 10 lies deep into a story that all started from just one lie.

To Tell Their Side of The Story

In some cases, a person may tell a lie and not even know it, because it doesn't seem like a lie to them. For instance, they might tell a story from their point of view to share how certain experiences were felt by them. The story might vary slightly from someone else's account of the same experience.

In addition, some people lie accidentally due to unreliable memories. Memory loss isn't something that only comes with age. In fact, stressful or emotionally charged situations can cause people to form false memories. These memories really seem like the truth to the person that is remembering them, but they might not be the objective truth that is recalled by others.

Who Do People Lie To?

The university's study also measured who people lied to over the course of three months. The results showed that the majority of people lied to loved ones. More specifically, 51% of participants lied to friends and 21% or participants lied to family members. In addition, 11% of participants lied to colleagues from their school or business environments, while about 9% of people surveyed lied to strangers, and 8% of participants lied to casual acquaintances.

Unfortunately, this means that the majority of people are lying to those that are closest to them. However, you're more likely to interact with these people in your immediate social circles, which means that you have more opportunities and conversations where lies might arise.

Two men talking and listening

Psychological Conditions Connected to Lying

While some people tell lies every now and then, there are also people who tell lies pathologically. Pathological liars often feel a compulsion to tell lies and may lie for no apparent benefit whatsoever. Although pathological lying is not a mental health condition in and of itself, it can be a symptom of some mental illnesses. Common diagnoses associated with patients who pathologically lie include the following.

Antisocial Personality Disorder

This disorder is accompanied by dysfunctional thought processes. For example, people with antisocial personality disorder by not feel remote for their actions and experience a lack of social responsibility. They might disregard other people's thoughts and feelings, not abide by laws, and often participate in deception and manipulation.

Borderline Personality Disorder

This is a mental health condition that affects a person's ability to regulate their own emotions. People with borderline personality disorder might experience mood swings, experience black-and-white thought patterns that make situations look either all good or all bad and engage in impulsive behaviors, such as lying.

Histrionic Personality Disorder

This mental health condition is also known as dramatic personality disorder. It is often associated with exaggerated emotions, attention-seeking behavior, as well as manipulation, and impulsivity. Together, these traits may cause a person to lie more frequently.

Factitious Disorders

This mental health condition was previously called Munchausen syndrome. It occurs when a person acts as if they have a physical or mental illness when they are actually healthy. They may lie about their symptoms, alter tests, or even hurt themselves in order to prove that they are unwell.

Other Disorders

In addition to those listed above, there are other mental disorders that may result in people telling lies. Examples include paranoid personality disorder, where a person feels an intense distrust or suspicion of those around them. As well as some of the dissociative disorders that cause people to be disconnected from their memories, consciousness, and identity.

Furthermore, some people with mental health struggles lie in order to prevent others from knowing about what they are going through. For example, a person diagnosed with an eating disorder may lie about how much they have already eaten in one day in order to avoid eating another meal. Or, a compulsive gambler may lie about how much money they spent on a trip to the casino.

The Neurology of Lying

A popular nursery rhyme suggests that a person's pants light on fire when they tell a lie. However, it's brain, not your pants, that actually lights up when you tell a fib. A person might be able to lie through their body language. However, they can't outsmart a brain scanner.

According to research, different areas of the prefrontal cortex are activated when a person is telling a fib. For example, the left caudate and right frontal gyrus are stimulated wherever a person tells a lie. However, research has also found that the more lies a person tells in row, the less these areas of the brain are activated.

For example, when you tell the first lie in a conversation, these areas might be activated in full force. However, when you get to the fourth lie these areas are less activated. This suggests that when the lying becomes constant that it may take less mental effort to keep them going.

Little White Lies and Beyond

People who have a mental health concern or that struggle with pathological lying can seek treatment by contacting a therapist, counselor, or other mental health professional. These healthcare workers will be able to create a unique plan on how to cope with whatever symptoms a person is experiencing and create a plan on how to move forward.

Most people lie every now and again, and there's not necessarily anything wrong with that. It just means you're human. However, if you find yourself lying more frequently or about specific situations, you can also seek the guidance of a therapist to understand more about your experience. It might help you learn more about yourself, and bring you one step closer to speaking your truth.

The Psychology of Lying