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Why do we lie?

The 2009 movie "The Invention of Lying" depicted a world completely devoid of falsehoods. Everyone tells the complete and honest truth all the time, and everything a person says is taken at face value. The premise is humorous because it's so contrary to the world we live in. Can you imagine telling someone you were breaking up with him because of his looks? Or admitting to your boss that you'd read his private e-mails? What about confessing to the days that you're so depressed you stay in bed crying?

We don't do that in polite society. If we break up with someone, we tend to think of courteous ways to put it, and if someone asks how we're doing, we respond that we're fine, when in actuality, we'd like to go home and spend quality time with our favorite liquor. In other words, we lie. But why? Why are we so deceitful when we claim with that we value honesty in our interpersonal relationships?

To some extent, we can be proud of our lies. Lying is considered a sign of intelligence and cognitive skill, because it takes some aptitude to recognize the way things are and then create and present an alternative to that reality. And it's a skill that we exercise quite a bit; in a study published in the Journal of Basic and Applied Psychology, researchers found that 60 percent of the subjects lied at least once during a videotaped 10-minute conversation [source: Lloyd]. Researchers reported that all the subjects believed they'd been completely truthful during the conversation, so when they watched the playback of the tape, they were amazed to find they'd said deceptive things.

The ability to lie and not realize it is a gift unique to humans. Not only do we deceive others, we can trick ourselves into believing something that's not true is. That's because motivation for lying is usually tied up in self-esteem and self-preservation. We lie in an effort to create the best possible version of ourselves, and we lie so that we don't have to face the consequences that our other, less-perfect self incurs. That means we may lie about our accomplishments or skills so that others respect us more, or to cover up mistakes so that we don't lose that respect. We'll also lie about mistakes and misdeeds to avoid punishment. Sometimes we do it to avoid hurting someone else's feelings, which has the bonus effect of ensuring the other person maintains their good opinion of us -- and doesn't become consumed with a desire to break our nose.

We lie because it works, and because it has benefits. We avoid punishment by fibbing about who scribbled on the walls with permanent marker, we get higher raises by taking credit for work tasks we didn't complete, and we get love by assuring a potential mate that he or she doesn't look fat in those jeans. When lying ceases to work (when the lie is discovered) and has more drawbacks than perks (your spouse won't look at you after discovering your extramarital affairs) -- only then do some people tell the truth.

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Sources

  • Bronson, Po. "Learning to Lie." New York Magazine. Feb. 10, 2008. (April 19, 2010)http://nymag.com/news/features/43893/
  • Harrell, Eben. "Why We Lie So Much." Time. Aug. 19, 2009. (April 19, 2010)http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1917215,00.html
  • Livingstone Smith, David. "Natural-Born Liars." Scientific American Mind. 2005.
  • Lloyd, Robin. "Why We Lie." LiveScience. May 15, 2006. (April 19, 2010)http://www.livescience.com/health/060515_why_lie.html
  • McCarthy, Jenna. "The Truth About Lying." Real Simple. (April 19, 2010)http://www.realsimple.com/work-life/life-strategies/truth-about-lying-00000000012669/
  • Scheve, Tom. "How Lying Works." HowStuffWorks.com. Dec. 9, 2008. (April 19, 2010)http://www.howstuffworks.com/lying.htm