How Lying Works

The Basics of Lies

Will what he doesn't know hurt him?
Will what he doesn't know hurt him?
Cormac Hanley/Stone/Getty Images

The ability to lie is a cognitive accomplishment. While we look down on the practice from a moral and ethical point of view, lying isn't normally done without a pretty good motive. Lies are told for some of the following reasons:

  • To conceal misdeeds and stay out of trouble. Wrongdoings often can't be undone, and it's rare that owning up to a misdeed will result in a positive outcome (at least in the short term). ­These lies are told to avoid responsibility and repercussions.
  • To preserve reputation. A recovering drug addict may lie about time spent in a treatment facility, especially to a potential employer or romantic prospect. A lie like this is told to avoid shame or embarrassment.
  • To avoid hurting someone's feelings. Children learn early on to be polite, not to point out physical flaws, and to say "thank you" even after they receive something they don't like. These "white lies" are distinguished from other types because they carry no ill will or bad intentions.
  • To increase stature and reputation. Some lies are told without any obvious external stimulus, such as a demand for an answer to a specific question. This type of lie is often narcissistic in nature, told to make the liar seem more accomplished, skilled or gifted as a means of gaining favor in the eyes of others.
  • To manipulate. These lies aren't evasive or defensive, but rather aggressive and malicious in nature. Such lies are told to gain wealth, love, favor or other assets by damaging another's reputation or spreading harmful untruths.
  • To control information. As opposed to airing a falsehood, indirect lying is withholding or concealing important facts. This is often seen as a more acceptable form of lying, since a person doesn't actively construct lies, but only sits tightly on the truth. A missing piece of information can completely alter the understanding of an event, leading American courts to demand not only the truth, but "the whole truth."

Lies are told -- in some form or fashion -- by just about everybody. Some personality types, however, are more likely to lie than others:

  • Pathological liars are generally sociopathic, lack a clear sense of right and wrong and show an absence of remorse when harming others. Sociopaths tell some of the best lies, since they don't feel bad about doing so and don't show signs of guilt or worry. Sociopaths lie for self-gain, and their lies veer heavily toward manipulation.
  • Compulsive liars lie as the first option, even when there's no reason or advantage for doing so. Childhood experiences, such as living in an abusive environment where lying might be necessary for survival or emotional well-being, are often responsible for compulsive lying.
  • Narcissists lie to gain undeserved glory and esteem in the eyes of others.
  • Borderline personalities experience wild mood swings and out-of-control behaviors, like drug abuse, gambling or promiscuous sex. This type may tell lies in an effort to deal with the fallout from these behaviors.
  • Histrionic personalities desperately crave love and attention and will tell lies that, though not accurate, may reflect the emotional truth of the situation. "I'm so sick I could die," and "If you leave me, I'll kill myself," are two examples of lies told by this type [source: Goleman].

Next, we'll learn the signs of lying.