How Lying Works

History Lies

Bill Clinton, pictured here with wife Hillary Clinton, emphatically denied an affair with Monica Lewinsky.
Bill Clinton, pictured here with wife Hillary Clinton, emphatically denied an affair with Monica Lewinsky.
Diana Walker/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

How long have humans been lying? (Don't ask us, we'll probably lie.) There have been so many massive lies throughout history that it's impossible to keep up with them all. Here are a few whoppers of notoriety:

  • Wartime propaganda. A common lie weaved throughout history is the lie that precedes an unprovoked act of aggression. The Nazis made use of this tactic before the German invasion of Poland. A series of mock attacks on various German border stations set the stage for a "defensive" swarming into Polish territory.
In August 1964, there were two reported incidents of North Vietnamese naval attacks against United States ships in the Gulf of Tonkin, off the coast of Vietnam. The second attack, which reportedly occurred two days after the first attack, never happened. The initial reports were the result of bad weather and faulty sonar and radar readings. Even though there were near-immediate doubts about the event, the supposed attacks were used as justification for the Lyndon B. Johnson administration to initiate military strikes against North Vietnamese forces.
Both the United States and the Soviet Union disseminated propaganda during the Cold War. A good deal of it was meant to influence public perception about the strengths and intentions of each country. Both nations tried to convince the other's populace that they were living in a corrupt society, while simultaneously convincing its own citizens that the other nation was on the verge of attack. Each nation inflated the military might of the other in order to keep their citizens preoccupied with fear, and also to justify increased arms and defense expenditures.
  • Sex scandals. Former U.S. President John F. Kennedy covered up his extramarital affairs, and plenty of other politicians have done the same. U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, a devout segregationist for much of his political career, fathered a child when he was 22 with an African-American woman who worked for his family. In 1998, then-­President Bill Clinton announced to the world, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky," referring to White House intern Monica Lewinsky, with whom he had sexual relations.
  • Lies in the media. Reporter Jayson Blair's tenure at the New York Times goes down in infamy. In 2003, the 27-year-old admitted he fabricated dozens of stories, made up quotes and filed reports from cities around the nation when he was actually still in New York.
  • Spies' lies. In 1986, CIA analyst Aldrich Ames had just started betraying his country by selling classified information to the Soviets when he learned he was scheduled to take a routine lie detector test. Nervous, Ames contacted his Soviet handlers for advice, figuring (rightly so) that if anyone knew how to beat an American lie detector test, it would be the Soviets. The answer the Soviets gave Ames seemed alarmingly simple, but Ames knew his value to the Soviets was so high that they wouldn't give him a flippant response.
What did they tell him? "Get a good night's sleep, and rest, and go into the test rested and relaxed. Be nice to the polygraph examiner, develop a rapport, and be cooperative and try to maintain your calm" [source: Weiner]. He did, and he passed.

For more HowStuffWorks articles on lying, from how fMRI works to the history behind propaganda, take a look at the links below.

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More Great Links


  • Barry, Dan; Barstow, David; Glater, Jonathan D.; Liptak, Adam; Steinberg, Jacques. "Times Reporter Who Resigned Leaves Long Trail of Deception." The New York Times. May 11, 2003.­ex=1367985600&partner=USERLAND
  • Bronson, Po. "Learning to Lie." New York. Feb. 10, 2008.
  • Goleman, Daniel. "Lies Can Point to Mental Disorders or Signal Normal Growth." The New York Times. May 17, 1988
  • Koerner, Brendan I. "Lie Detector Roulette." Mother Jones. Nov./Dec. 2002.
  • Myers, David G. "The Power and Perils of Intuition." Psychology Today. November/December 2002.
  • National Security Archive. "Tonkin Gulf Intelligence 'Skewed' According to Official History and Intercepts." Dec. 1, 2005.
  • Price, Michael. "Liar, liar, neurons fire." Monitor on Psychology. Volume 39, No. 1 January 2008.
  • Stein, Jeff. "Lie Detectors Lie (Tell the C.I.A.)." The New York Times. Feb. 19, 1995.
  • Talwar, Victoria; Lee, Kang. "Development of lying to conceal a transgression: Children's control of expressive behaviour during verbal deception." International Journal of Behavioral Development. 2002, 26 (5), 436-444.
  • Talwar, Victoria; Lee, Kang. "Emergence of White-Lie Telling in Children Between 3 and 7 Years of Age." Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, April 2002, Vol. 48, No. 2, pp. 160-181.
  • University at Buffalo. "Lying is Exposed By Micro-expressions We Can't Control." ScienceDaily. May 5, 2006. (Dec. 1, 2008)
  • Weiner, Tim; Johnston, David; Lewis, Neil A. "Betrayal: The Story of Aldrich Ames, an American Spy." Random House. June 6, 1995. ISBN# 067944050X; 978-0679440505.
  • Westlake, Jennifer. "Victoria Talwar." McGill Reporter. Dec. 9, 2004.
  • Winerman, Lea. "What We Know Without Knowing How." American Psychological Association. March 2005.