Have You Ever Told a Lie?

Jess Jarvis

Although many people don’t like to admit they lie, it is something that we all do – some of us more than others. Psychologist, Professor Richard Wiseman, says that we are all born with a natural ability to lie, suggesting it is a relatively inescapable certainty within our lives.


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Why might we tell a lie?

Social Psychologist Bella DePaulo believes that bending the truth is becoming a part of everyday conversation.  On average, people are thought to lie 10 times a week, or in a third of social interactions.

However, lying is not always done with bad intentions – so-called ‘white lies’ have good intentions. Quite frequently, people will tell a porkie-pie without even realizing it, to allow the smoothness of a conversation to continue.

DePaulo suggests there are two kinds of lies that can be told, ‘self-serving lies’ and ‘kind-hearted lies’. ‘Self-serving lies’ are the kind of tall tales that people tell to impress others or save their own self-esteem, such as “claiming to have performed better than you really did or denying that you did something bad or embarrassing.”

Meanwhile ‘kind-hearted lies’ are those told to improve another’s self-esteem and to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. This could be telling someone they look nice when you might not believe it, or making excuses to reject a party invitation so you don’t have to tell the person that you just don’t want to go.

Are some people better at lying that others?

It is thought that some people are more skilled at telling lies and do so more willingly than others – but the question is, why?

Is it a trait of their personality, demographics or relationships? Or are they plagued by a compulsive and pathological need to lie, in order to impress others or improve their own self-esteem?

The stereotype of a liar for many, is a person who is manipulative and scheming. This is not far wrong. Many people who lie are classed as more ‘manipulative’ in personality than those who do not lie. Extroverts who have more opportunity for social interaction are also found to be more prone to lying, whilst responsible personalities and introverts are significantly less likely to bend the truth.

Compulsive liars are often incredibly hard to detect. In some cases, people will tell extreme pathological lies, that spiral out of control or can manipulate a situation or another person. These can be hurtful and detrimental to relationships when discovered to be untrue.

However, people who suffer with this compulsive need to lie often do so to improve their self-esteem. They can find it terribly uncomfortable to face the truth, especially as they fear losing the life they have built for themselves on deceit.

How can you tell if someone is lying?

FBI Agent Bouton, suggests you can tell if a person might be lying to you through simply observing their facial expressions. These actions are easier to spot in people who you know well as you can see the difference in their behaviour compared to normal, and is particularly effective when asking a question that you believe they will answer with a lie.

Dr. Paul Seager, a senior psychology lecturer also suggests features of body language can indicate lying, such as a shaking of the leg or a movement in the fingers. For example, right-handed people tend to look directly to the right when lying about what they heard, and up to the right when lying about what they saw.

Facial expressions of a liar:

Many of these behaviours could explain why you often hear people asking others to ‘look me in the eye’ when trying to work out if someone is telling the truth. It seems that those who lie can work themselves up into quite the fluster when confronted about their dishonest behaviour!

It is thought that the use of imaging techniques in science such as fMRI and EEG could tell us a lot about why we lie and how the brain works to achieve this. By looking at the changes which occur in the brain when we lie, we can discover a lot about its process and also how to detect whether someone is telling the truth or not based on their brain activity and functioning.

The Polygraph used to be the method commonly adopted to detect lying. However psychologist Geoffrey Bunn suggests that, “the problem with the polygraph, is that it detects fear, not lying; the physiological responses that it measures—most often heart rate, skin conductivity, and rate of respiration—don’t necessarily accompany dishonesty”.

Although FMRI and EEG follow similar premises, they are a bit more complex in their detection of brain functioning than the polygraph lie detection methods seen on the likes of Jeremy Kyle!

So, next time you think about being Pinocchio and telling a tall story, decide whether it’s really necessary. Although your nose may not grow, it may be more obvious that you are lying than you think!


Would I Lie To You?

Ellen Moye

Are your pants on fire? Because Dr Robert Feldman, Psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts, says that they are. His studies into lying conclude that everyone lies, and at an alarming rate too! In fact, on average people will lie two to three times in a ten-minute conversation alone, a statement that gives stead to previous estimates that humans are lied to at least 200 times a day.


Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The University of Portsmouth found children could already learn and utilise deception techniques by age six months, pretending to laugh and cry for nothing other than attention. Dr Gail Saltz, a New York psychiatrist, says that once children reach the ages of four or five they have a firm enough grasp on the use and power of language to begin to lie properly. She notes that these first lies are merely a test: to see what can be manipulated in their environment and to what extent.

So how, as children, do we learn to lie?

The mechanisms behind how children learn to lie are still shrouded in mystery but research suggests that lying is a strategy used by young children as a way of developing independence. Children observe from their parents that there are things that their parents keep from them and thus begin to create secrets of their own. Thus they learn lying and secrecy from their parents.

At a young age lying is healthy and normal but as the child grows and the brain develops, normal development dictates that lying should begin to abate. This is in order to fit in with a society where lying is generally taboo.

So why do we lie?

Lying is a reflex. In fact, in one of Feldman’s studies he asked subjects to watch a filmed conversation they had just had with a stranger and point out any inaccuracies in what they said. Many of the subjects were surprised to find that they had told lies, initially claiming themselves to have be 100% accurate in the conversation.

Feldman would say that lying is an evolutionary trait. It has evolved as a good mechanism to “preserve our privacy and protect others and ourselves from malice”. This is shown in everyday life in the harmless white lies that people tell. For example, telling your friend that you like their new trainers when you wouldn’t be seen dead in them yourself.  Feldman would say this protects our friend from malice and thus, they remain our friend, which is advantageous for us.

Most would agree a white lie about a pair of trainers is fairly harmless, but where do we draw the line? When is lying OK and when is it not?

When a person feels compelled to lie consistently and with seemingly nothing to be gained from that behaviour is when society tends to draw the line. This trait, known as pathological lying is self-deprecating and although not a mental health problem itself it can be seen as a symptom of various personality disorders and psychopathy.  Causes can include; dysfunctional families, learning disabilities and substance abuse and pathological lying can cause the perpetrator to be ostracised as it can create relationship, financial and legal trouble.

Whilst pathological lying can be detrimental, lying from a young age is simply a healthy step in development.