Why Do People Lie?

A few years ago, I was out with my single male friend "J" after a St. Patrick's Day Parade in downtown Hartford.  It was one of those fabulous days in our Capitol city where the streets come alive with people, transforming our quiet little city into a high-energy big city for a day.  We popped into a packed bar for a celebratory Guinness when a beautiful woman began chatting with J.  The chemistry between them was immediate and mutual.  

After a flirty 15 minutes, the magic moment arrived when she offered him her phone number.  Score!  The conversation flowed naturally until the woman asked J, "What did you study in college?"  After a pause, he said "Engineering".  It was clear she liked his answer and said "I hope you call me!" before leaving with her friends.  

As we navigated through the crowd to leave, he said " I know I just lied about being a college graduate".  I asked why.  He simply said, "It would have been a deal breaker if I told her the truth".  Unfortunately, J never ended up calling her because he was too embarrassed to come clean if they ended up on a date.  

If you are like most people, you tell at least 1.65 lies in an average day.  Psychologists who study deception report that we lie anywhere from 1.65 times to 200 times per day -- talk about a big variance!!  Lies can be white, black and every shade of grey in between.  If we count innocent white lies like "I like your haircut" when we are indifferent, or say "I am fine today" when we have a headache, it is safe to say we all lie at one time or another.

So why do we lie?  Does the why matter?  Let's explore the why behind lies.

1) We lie to protect or bolster our self-esteem.  Most people care what people think of them.  On some level, we all crave acceptance from people we know and sometimes people we don't know.  If we feel our self-esteem is threatened in some way, we may bend the truth so we are seen in a more favorable light.  J was clearly trying to preserve his self-confidence and secure approval from the woman.  So, he lied.

2) We lie to avoid punishment.  No one likes to be "in trouble" with with their friends, family members, bosses or anyone else for that matter.  Whether the punishment is minor like a criticism or major like being fired, lies are sometimes our unplanned go-to move to save us.  J certainly did not want to take himself out of the running that day and risk losing the interest of the woman.  Thus, the lie.

3) We lie to preserve social harmony.  While there are "brutally honest" people out there who will punch you in the face with the truth, most people protect the feelings of others and will lie if they know the truth will be hurtful.  J was protecting against a possible awkward moment that could have made the woman feel bad for assuming he was a college graduate.  Enter, the lie.

Some lies have all of these elements beneath them while others have just one.  While our parents taught us to "never tell a lie", the reality is lying is a part of how many of us communicate, maintain relationships and protect our self-esteem.  We may not even realize we are doing it, especially when there is positive intent behind our lie.  

The next time you detect someone is telling a lie, ask yourself "What is the why behind the lie?  Was the lie told for the sake of harmony? Is this lie bad?"  

The answer is a matter of perspective.  What do you think?