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Why do people lie? 12 main motives for deception

Telling lies is something that starts at an early age when children feel threatened by someone or something for various reasons.

Kids don’t set out to tell lies, however, they mostly just want to stay out of trouble.

A white lie here and there seems to make its way into adulthood with us, but some people are just plain liars.

They lie for anything and everything and it can be exhausting to try to keep up with.

The psychology behind why someone lies and what makes someone a liar is interesting because lying seems to come from a place of protection: either of oneself, another person, property, integrity (hello! Insert irony here) and approval.

According to University of Massachusetts psychologist Robert Feldman:

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“It’s tied in with self-esteem. We find that as soon as people feel that their self-esteem is threatened, they immediately begin to lie at higher levels.”

We’ve put together a list of twelve reasons why people lie; perhaps this will help you understand your own motives for when you have a slip of the tongue too.

1) To steer clear of consequences

Lying is an easy way to avoid getting in trouble for things you did. Whether you were the one who spilled the milk or you cheated on your husband, lying gets you out of all kinds of sticky situations.

According to Seth Slater, M.F.A.:

“Lying can bail us out of awkward situations. Spare the feelings of others. Preserve or strengthen alliances. Enhance social standing. Keep us out of trouble. Even save our lives.

“Which brings us to the evolutionary biology of cognition because lying is, in fact, a valuable tool in the survival kit of any social species.”

That doesn’t make it okay, though.

Lying is convenient for the most part, as long as you don’t have to recount your story again later.

People tend to lie because they are trying to avoid punishment, either from parents, friends, coworkers, loved ones, or their boss.

2) To avoid feeling awkward

Some people lie because they don’t know how to socialize properly and just say things they think people want to hear.

This is a difficult situation to be in because everyone wants approval, but so many people feel like they can’t be themselves that they need to lie about everything from where they live, who they’ve dated, to what kind of job they have.

Author and physician Dr. Alex Lickerman explains:

“We all want others to think well of us, yet we all do things we ourselves consider less than respectable at times.

Rather than admit it, however, and suffer a diminution of others’ respect, we often cover it up. Or, having failed to act courageously and virtuously, we lie to appear more courageous and virtuous than we are.”

Chronic liars tend to take these stories to the next level, while the majority of people may lie and say they’ve read a book that everyone else has read or they’ve seen a particular movie.

Careful though!

Pretending to have done or seen something can get you more hot water when you’re found out to be lying about something trivial.

It’s best to just say you’ve not had the pleasure of experiencing whatever it is that people are talking about.

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3) To fit in with the crowd

It’s important to remember that acceptance and love is one of the most important things to human beings.

When we are rejected by our peers, a lot of problems can persist for people physically and emotionally.

Our wellbeing hinges on the acceptance of others and so it’s not uncommon to find people lying about things to have friends.

People lie about what kind of food they like, entertainment options, things they want to do and don’t want to do and more.

It’s interesting that people would actually put themselves out in order to fit in, and it’s important that you consider why someone would go to great lengths just to be near you instead of accusing them of lying.

Jennifer Argo of the University of Alberta, adds:

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“We want to both look good when we are in the company of others (especially people we care about), and we want to protect our self-worth”

Sometimes, people just need some time to feel comfortable and everything comes out all wrong until they do.

4) To get ahead

Now, we turn our attention to the malicious kind of lying and the kind most people worry about.

According to Dr. Lickerman:

“Probably the second most common reason we lie is to get what we want. We lie to get material goods (like money) and non-material goods (like attention from the telling of tall tales).”

Lying to get ahead is common in workplaces and in social circles. This is especially true when opportunities present themselves and money is on the line.

People who lie to get ahead are called opportunistic people and they usually know this about themselves.

Interestingly enough, they don’t generally wrestle with the lying. It’s part of who they are and they will do whatever it takes to get where they are going.

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As you’ll see in the next section, sometimes that involves throwing others under the bus.

5) To make others look bad

Did you ever tell a lie about a sibling to get them in trouble to take the heat off yourself? Grownups do that too.

These grownups, however, know better, yet still, try to get ahead by getting someone else in trouble.

Lying is a convenient way to turn the tables on your colleague with whom you are battling for the coveted promotion.

You might manipulate your way to the top by saying bad things about other people, making inferences that others may take to heart, or create scenarios where people can read between the lines.

For example, some people make up their own stories about what they think happened with Jan and Rob in accounting and they’ll do your dirty work for you.

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Lying to get ahead is also easier for people who lack empathy.

According to psychiatrist Judith Orloff, author of The Empath’s Survival Guide:

“I think it comes from a defect in the neurological wiring in terms of what causes us to have compassion and empathy.

“Because narcissists, sociopaths, and psychopaths have what’s called empathy deficient disorder, meaning they don’t feel empathy in the way we would.”

6) To safeguard someone else

Finally, people lie sometimes to protect someone else from getting hurt. While we do have the capacity to lie like a rug, sometimes we do it not for the betterment of ourselves, but for others.

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Have you ever given a false reference for a job because your friend needed you to step up to the plate for her?

Have you ever embellished about a coworker to help them get promoted? Did you ever lie for your child to protect them from public ridicule?

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People can lie to spare your feels, according to social psychologist Bella DePaulo.

She explains:

“If you are in a very vulnerable place and other people know that, they may be reluctant to tell you something you might not want to hear. If they think you can’t handle the truth because you are too fragile, they will be tempted to lie.”

Sometimes we lie with the best of intentions. Our instincts to protect one another are as strong as our instincts to seek love and acceptance. Ironically, lying can help us achieve both of those things.

7) The story they’ve created is real to them

Sometimes a lie becomes so ingrained that it feels real to them. They lie persists because they’ve trained their brains to stop questioning it.

Liars just don’t care about the consequences of their deception.

Orloff explains:

“When they lie it doesn’t hurt them in the same way it would hurt us. So many people get into relationships with pathological liars, or just can’t understand why they’re lying, because they’re trying to fit these people into the ordinary standards of what it means to be empathetic.”

A funny thing happens to our memories as we carry on with lies: we start to believe that they think we made up is actually true.

It’s a tough sell, and it can be hard to bring people back from the brink of lying to the point of thinking it is their reality, but if you persist and stick with them, get them the help they need, it can be reversed.

Unfortunately, most people just walk out the door because they are tired of being lied to, but it is a form of compulsion and it can have long-lasting and severe consequences for everyone involved if it’s not properly addressed.

8) They have high expectations of themselves

Some people lie because they don’t want to disappoint themselves or others. They make up a story to fill in the blanks to make things seem better than they are.

People often do this with money, accomplishment, and opportunities.

They also lie so they wouldn’t lose face.

According to Clinical psychologist David J. Ley:

“It may not feel like it to you, but people who tell lie after lie are often worried about losing the respect of those around them. They want you to like them, be impressed, and value them. And they’re worried that the truth might lead you to reject or shame them.”

If someone you know is lying about any of these things and you can’t figure out why, sit down and talk to them about their confidence and why they feel the need to embellish what is really going on in their life.

Discussing who they are trying to impress and why it’s important to make up these stories can open a dialogue that provides a lot of trust and change in them.

9) The lies get caught in a web and they feel out of control

Whenever someone tells a lie, they open themselves up to the possibility that the lie will overthrow them.

We like to think we are in control of our lies and the stories we tell, but when they’ve gone on for so long, they tend to take on a life of their own.

This is often true of people who lie about gambling, smoking, drinking, abuse, money problems, and other similar issues that tend to come with a lot of shame and fear.

According to psychologist Linda Blair, they just dig themselves so deep, it’s hard to come out.

She explains:

“I don’t think it’s something they know how to deal with. We think probably it has something to do with actual brain function and the way some people’s brains work, which makes it much harder for them to understand the effect it will have on other people… We think, but we just don’t know yet for sure.”

If someone is lying about these things and it feels like it’s getting out of control, help them devise a plan to tackle the issue head-on instead of hiding from it in a web of lies.

10) Lying gives them a sense of control over you or the situation

For some people, lying gives them the upper hand. They tell lies to make themselves seem important or fulfilled in ways that the truth does not or cannot provide.

It’s a slippery slope because these lies often hurt others in the process. If your guy is controlling or trying to control you, it might be safe to say that he is lying about some things that you share.

According to Argo:

“I guess closely tied to this is that people appear to be short-term focused when they decide to deceive someone—save my self-image and self-worth now, but later on if the deceived individual finds out it can have long-term consequences.”

Discussing things with them make the situation worse and they weave more lies to fill in the blanks about your questions, but it’s better to know now than carry on wondering who this person really is.

11) They believe what they say and need you to believe it too

Lies formulate to change the direction of conversation or situation. If your guy is lying to you, it might be that he needs to you believe what he is saying for his sanity.

If something happens or he believes something happened, he may continue to tell that story as if it were true to try to convince you that the event took place.

Ley explains:

“Often, repetitive liars feel so much pressure in the moment that their memory becomes simply unreliable. When they say something, it’s often because they genuinely believe, at that moment, that it is the truth.”

Seeing someone, an old friend, losing money on a slot machine, or an incident at work are all examples of things that could trigger a spiral of lies that leads him to want you to believe he was right about those things all along.

12) Saying it makes it real

Finally, people often lie because it makes the thing real for them.

If they want to believe it or they want it to be real, all they have to do is say it enough times and the thought becomes reality.

It’s psychology 101. If we believe something, it’s true no matter how hard someone else tries to convince us otherwise.

Lying is also the easiest option when someone doesn’t want to exert any more effort.

According to Sissela Bok, an ethicist at Harvard University told National Geographic:

“Lying is so easy compared to other ways of gaining power. 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.”

A life built on lies is no life at all

Lying doesn’t only damage the person you are lying to, it also creates a lot of conflict in your life.

According to Duke psychologist Dan Ariely:

“The dangerous thing about lying is people don’t understand how the act changes us.

“We as a society need to understand that when we don’t punish lying, we increase the probability it will happen again.”

Perhaps it’s impossible to live a life without lies. But there isn’t any harm in trying to live it with integrity.

***Do you want to be a stronger person? Do you want to stare down your challenges and overcome any obstacles? If so, check out our eBook: The Art of Resilience: A Practical Guide to Mental Toughness.

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Written by Lachlan Brown

I’m Lachlan Brown, the editor of Ideapod and founder of Hack Spirit. I love writing practical articles that help others live a mindful and better life. I have a graduate degree in Psychology and I’ve spent the last 6 years reading and studying all I can about human psychology and practical ways to hack our mindsets. If you to want to get in touch with me, hit me up on Twitter or Facebook.

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