Why can’t we stop lying? The truth behind the lie

Ever since we were kids, our parents have been constantly drilling into us that lying is bad. They explained that it was a mark of immaturity, something immoral that should never be done. However, to our surprise it turned out that our mature parents have been lying to us as well. For instance, they used false promises to make us do things we didn’t want to do. Leonard Saxe, a professor of psychology at Brandeis University, observed that [1] “parents may lie to their children even while in the act of telling them not to lie”. That left us confused and conflicted. If parents lie, why can’t we lie too? So we found out pretty quickly that lying is a powerful tool that can be used for our advantage. It allows us to control reality without using any physical power.

  • 48%

    kids lie to parents

A survey conducted in the UK revealed that 48% of children lie to their parents “occasionally” or “always” about brushing their teeth, proving that not only adults lie. We actually start being dishonest at a very early stage of our life. Victoria Talwar and Kang Lee found [2] that children would start lying at the age of 2 to 3 using so called primary lies. Those are deliberately untrue statements told by kids without taking into consideration the listener’s mental state. The older we are, the better we get at lying. By the age of 7 or 8 we can already tell lies much more consistent with the facts and we are even able think about possible follow-up statements. Given those numbers imagine how great liars we can be when we finally get to run our own business or work as employees.

Why do we lie?

Lies are ubiquitous. It’s simply a part of our everyday life. It starts early when we are kids and accompanies us through the rest of our life. According to a study [3] published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology most people lie at least once or twice a day. But why do we do this? It’s one of the biggest questions about lying: what motivates us to make false statements? A research [4] conducted by Timothy Levine proved that we do have common motivations to lie even though we may come from different cultures. People from Egypt, Guatemala, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United States – so people with different cultural background – were part of the research study aiming at finding the reasons for lying. The outcome is presented in diagram below:

why do we lie
Source: National Geographic 06.2017

So before you start asking yourself “how to spot a lie” you need to understand why all people lie on daily basis. Then you’ll know how and where to look for lies.

Reason #1: To please others

Jim Carrey didn’t have an easy life when he stopped telling lies in the movie “Liar, Liar”. I’d venture a statement that some kind of lies are less harmful than others and that they may even make your life easier or be socially acceptable. 

Imagine that you get a cake from your grandmother. She prides herself in having spent hours preparing your favorite cake for you and is now super excited that you came to visit her and enjoy the dessert. But the cake isn’t very tasty. In fact, it’s awful. Yet you wouldn’t have the heart to tell her that this is one of the worst cakes you’ve ever eaten. You wouldn’t want to cause grandma any harm in order just to stay honest. It’s more than likely you’d just smile and say it’s one of the most delicious cakes you’ve ever eaten. This is an example of a so called white lie which doesn’t hurt anyone, but it simply keeps the conversation going and doesn’t cause any damage to a good relationship. There are many instances of white lies you can notice in everyday situations: “Of course, I’d love to see your vacation pictures!”, “Thanks, I’m doing fine”.

pleasant lie

If your colleague bought a car and is now showing it off to everyone, you’re more likely to say “wow, what a nice car” instead of “hmm, that’s an average car”. You take into consideration other factors, not just your opinion of the car. You think of what that purchase means to the person, all the money he must have spent on it and how it makes him feel. Even if you find that car appalling or not spectacular at all, you don’t want to ruin his happiness just for the sake of being truthful. And that’s fine.

Reason #2: To gain financial benefits

In their study, psychologists Nobuhito Abe and Joshua Greene, found [5] that people were more likely to cheat when they could achieve financial benefits. The study participants were asked to predict the outcome of random computerized coin-flips. Then they were rewarded financially on the basis of their accuracy. In some trials, the participants had the opportunity to create a report of their accuracy themselves. That gave them ability to lie. The study members’ brains were scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The result showed that those who were lying experienced greater activation in the nucleus accumbens, a structure which plays a key role in our rewarding mechanism. Greene explained that outcome in simple words:

“The more excited your reward system gets at the possibility of getting money—even in a perfectly honest context—the more likely you are to cheat.”

Sissela Bok, an ethicist at Harvard University, summarized the financial reason for lying perfectly. Lying doesn’t require any physical strength. It’s easy and accessible to everyone.  

“It’s much easier to lie in order to get somebody’s money or wealth than to hit them over the head or rob a bank.”

Reason #3: To make yourself look better

It’s tempting to present yourself in the best possible way. Sometimes your image can even be much more positive than it is in reality. People tend to go to job interviews with enhanced resumes, especially in the skills and previous experience sections. They can even embellish to the point of boasting about challenges they didn’t experience and skills they don’t really have. And that’s because liars have a huge advantage over their listeners. 

The reason for that is what psychologists call truth bias. As human beings we are hardwired to assume that what we hear and see is true. This allows us to live efficiently. Without the truth bias we would spend an insane amount of time checking all information that comes to us. Our relationships would be a nightmare. Could you imagine being skeptical all the time and questioning everything you hear?

That bias is also stronger when we deal with people close to us. That’s why it’s extremely difficult to interview people you know or you already like. If your candidate is a well-known professional who is regularly seen at conferences and, more importantly, you already like him, it’s quite probable that you will want to believe he’s a great expert. You will want to support your current belief and prove that your opinion is right. People are not very effective in looking for the truth. As George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist at the University of California, explained it:

“If a fact comes in that doesn’t fit into your frame, you’ll either not notice it, or ignore it, or ridicule it, or be puzzled by it—or attack it if it’s threatening.”

The final note

Lying is a developmental milestone, like any other cognitive ability. No matter where you’re from, you have similar reasons for lying to anyone else all over the world. In terms of lying our essence is all the same. 

Interestingly enough, many people want to learn how to spot a lie. They read articles and watch videos about it but I believe the first step in this quest should be to understand what drives people to lie. Put yourself in those shoes and think about the liars’ motivations. 

Now stay tuned for the next article. It’s going to cover another topic related to job interviews and lies: How to spot a liar at the job interview?


[1] Saxe, Leonard. (1991). Lying: Thoughts of an applied social psychologist. American Psychologist. 46. 409-415. 10.1037/0003-066X.46.4.409.

[2] Talwar, Victoria & Lee, Kang. (2008). Social and Cognitive Correlates of Childrens Lying Behavior. Child development. 79. 866-81. 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2008.01164.x.

[3] DePaulo, Bella & Kashy, Deborah & Kirkendol, Susan & Wyer, Melissa & Epstein, Jennifer. (1996). Lying in Everyday Life. Journal of personality and social psychology. 70. 979-95. 10.1037/0022-3514.70.5.979.

[4] Levine, Timothy & Ali, Mohammad & Dean, Marleah & Abdulla, Rasha & Garcia-Ruano, Karina. (2016). Toward a Pan-cultural Typology of Deception Motives. Journal of Intercultural Communication Research. 45. 1-12. 10.1080/17475759.2015.1137079.

[5] Abe, Nobuhito & Greene, Joshua. (2014). Response to Anticipated Reward in the Nucleus Accumbens Predicts Behavior in an Independent Test of Honesty. The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience. 34. 10564-72. 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0217-14.2014.