People who are lying are trying to mislead others. If an attempt to mislead is conscious, entails misstatement of fact, and promises a payoff, it is usually considered a lie. Alongside its denotative meaning, lying is a pejorative term. In one investigation, college students rated the social desirability of 555 one-word descriptions of a person. According to these ratings, the most negative thing one can say about a person is not that the person is greedy, incompetent, prejudiced, or cruel. The most negative thing one can say is that the person is a liar.
Lying is related to other phenomena. Like deception, lying involves false communication. However, deception is a broader concept. Biologists have discussed deception by fireflies, possums, and plants, but few would claim that plants can lie. As lying is one type of deception, so are there many types of lies: lies of omission and commission, white lies, and high-stakes lies.
Lying has intrigued scholars for thousands of years. Theologians have debated the morality of deceit, and epistemologists have puzzled over apposite logical problems like the liar’s paradox. Lying has been a recurrent literary theme. Novelists have dazzled their readers with fictional deception and counterdeception; playwrights have captivated audiences with both dramatic and comic lies.
Social scientists’ interest in lying grew from a practical concern, the need to detect lies. In a 1917 Journal of Experimental Psychology article, Harvard doctoral student John Marston described his efforts to construct a lie detection technology, based on the premise that lying is accompanied by changes in blood pressure. Marston’s work gave rise to the polygraph, an apparatus that monitors several indices of autonomic functioning. Once polygraphs came to be used in examinations for truthfulness, the accuracy of this lie detector became a matter of scientific debate. Reviewing evidence on both sides of this controversy, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences concluded in 2003 that the polygraph detects lies at rates that are better than chance but imperfect. In the National Academy’s view, polygraph examinations are poorly suited for screening large populations of people that include only a small percentage of liars.
Soon after Marston’s psychophysiological venture, Hugh Hartshorne and Mark May developed methods for measuring character. In their 1928 book Studies in Deceit, Hartshorne and May reported many character tests, including a test for lying in children. This written self-report instrument asked children about conduct that is socially approved but rare. Thus, the child was asked, “Do you always obey your parents cheerfully and promptly?” Across thirty-six such items, some children claimed that they were always good and never bad. The authors maintained that these children were lying, while acknowledging that some might get high “lie scores” because they were exceedingly conventional. Hartshorne and May’s clever test inspired the inclusion of “Lie scales” on subsequent self-report instruments. These seek to identify individuals who are falsifying their self reports.
Inspired by these pioneering efforts, social scientists have illuminated several aspects of lying: the demography of deceit, deceptive behavior, and veracity judgments.
Lying is most likely universal. It has been found in all cultures ever studied. In a 2003 investigation, Lawrence Sugiyama and associates reported some relevant cross-cultural evidence: that farmers in a preliterate culture perform as well as Harvard students on difficult reasoning problems, so long as the reasoning would prevent them from being duped in a social exchange. These results suggest that cheating is a pan-cultural component of social life. Indeed, evolutionists have attributed the large size of the human brain to selection pressures imposed by the ever-escalating Machiavellian intelligence of our ancestors’ scheming peers.
Psychologists have ventured estimates of the frequency of lying in everyday life. In one investigation, college students logged all the lies they told over a period of several weeks. Their records imply that the average student lies once or twice per day, once in every three to five social interactions. In another study, thousands of people from around the world were asked how many lies the typical person tells in a week. Their estimates varied widely, but the median estimate was that typical person lies seven times a week, or once a day.
Social scientists have analyzed deception at the institutional level. Historians have revisited large-scale military deceptions, like the Allies’ duping of Nazi Germany before the Normandy landing in 1944. Political scientists have described constraints on the use of duplicity by the intelligence services of democracies. Financial analysts have noted international differences in institutional corruption. According to Transparency International, an anticorruption organization based in Berlin, the most corrupt countries in the world in 2005 were Bangladesh and Chad. The least corrupt were Iceland, Finland, and New Zealand. Economic factors help explain international differences in corruption. Highly corrupt countries are poor and pay their civil servants poorly by local standards. Psychological factors may also play a role. Controlling for differences in income, countries are more corrupt if they feature a collective culture, rather than an individualistic culture.
Researchers have documented socioeconomic, racial, and family differences in lying. Armed with the character tests they developed, Hartshorne and May reported in 1928 that students from a low socioeconomic background are more likely to cheat than those from a higher background. In 2002 sociologists Judith Blau and Elizabeth Stearns reported a discrepant finding: that white students of high socioeconomic status are most likely and black students are least likely to condone cheating. Perhaps socioeconomic differences in cheating have changed over the years. In any case, there are family influences on deception. In 1982, a team of investigators measured 54 different personality traits on each member of 415 families in Hawaii. The researchers found that family members resemble one another in personality. This was expected. However, the researchers also found that family members resemble one another in the tendency to lie. Indeed, family similarities proved to be stronger on Lie Scales embedded within the investigators’ personality tests than on any of the other traits measured.
Social scientists have explored sex differences in lying. Although some have maintained that the sexes differ in the propensity to lie, it appears that a larger difference is in motives for deception. Women are more likely to lie to spare others’ feelings, while men more often lie out of self-interest. Relative to women, men are more suspicious of what they hear. Although there is little evidence that the sexes differ in the ability to discriminate lies from truths, women are more willing than men to accept politely what others say. Perhaps these sex differences reflect differential socialization experiences.
Do people act in distinctive ways when they are lying? Are there behavioral signatures from which lying can be inferred?
Certain behaviors appear to accompany deceit on certain occasions. Medical researchers Alan Hirsch and Charles Wolf analyzed a videotape of Bill Clinton during Clinton’s August 17, 1998, appearance before a federal grand jury. While giving testimony that a judge later found to be false, Clinton displayed 20 of 23 putative signs of deception. Clinton, for example, made more speech errors when denying a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky than when answering perfunctory questions. While testifying about Lewinsky, Clinton showed a tendency to touch his nose—which the authors dubbed a “Pinocchio phenomenon.”
Although Hirsch and Wolf’s videotape analysis is certainly provocative, it reflects a single case. One wonders if the 20 behaviors that accompanied Clinton’s suspect testimony accompany most lies. To address this issue, psychologist Bella DePaulo and colleagues analyzed research data on 158 potential deception cues from 120 independent samples of lie-and truth-tellers. They considered facial cues, bodily cues, vocal cues, and verbal cues, organizing the evidence around a series of questions.
None of the 158 behaviors these reviewers examined is a perfect indicator of deception, always displayed when a person is lying and never otherwise displayed. Even so, some cues bear a statistical relationship to deception. Compared to truth-tellers, liars are less forthcoming. They sound distant, appear tense, and convey a negative impression. Invariably actuarial, cues to deception vary to a considerable extent across situations, across liars, and across lies. Attempts to conceal fear may, for instance, be exposed by inadvertent signs of fear.
For lie detection, it is best to assemble evidence from multiple cues. German psychologist Gunter Kohnken has advocated a multicue approach for assessing the truthfulness of statements. This so-called Statement Validity Analysis has been used in Europe to evaluate legal testimony, particularly the testimony of children who allege sexual abuse. As a component of Statement Validity Analysis, the witness’s account of an event is checked against nineteen criteria presumed to be indicative of truthfulness. Criterion-Based Content Analysis (CBCA) deems as truthful, for example, witnesses who spontaneously correct themselves, admit a lack of memory, and recount events in a nonchronological order. Research studies corroborate the value of this content-based system, suggesting that CBCA can discriminate lies from truths with an accuracy of about 70 percent.
Alongside these research efforts are lay attempts to uncover deceit. Nonscientists make judgments of deception every day, and these judgments have consequences. Some business negotiations succeed and others fail because of the negotiators’ judgments of one another’s truthfulness. Some marriages end in a month and others last fifty years because of the partners’ beliefs about one another’s veracity. Lay judgments of deception have special significance in U.S. courtrooms, where jurors are the only lie detectors. Whenever witnesses give conflicting testimony, jurors must decide who is telling the truth. Thus under American law a defendant’s fate can hinge on her (or his) demeanor, and those who appear guilty are often found guilty.
Social scientists have investigated lay theories of lying. As they have discovered, people share beliefs about behaviors that accompany deceit. In a 2006 investigation a global deception research team found that the most common stereotype in the world about deception is that liars avoid eye contact. Residents of 75 countries said that liars avoid eye contact, expressing this belief in 42 different languages. In response to the open-ended question “How can you tell that others are lying?” two-thirds of the respondents worldwide mentioned that liars avert gaze, and when they mentioned more than one way to tell when others are lying, they mentioned gaze aversion first.
Do people in fact avoid eye contact when lying? There is not much evidence to support this belief. In the findings reviewed by DePaulo and colleagues, people who are telling small lies show no tendency to avert gaze, and those who are telling bigger lies show only a weak gaze aversion. Even if there is a kernel of truth to the stereotype of the gaze-aversive liar, this belief is overdrawn. In a study by communications scholar Timothy Levine, college students were asked to rate the eye contact of peers they saw on videotape. When informed that the peers were lying, students perceived them to be averting gaze.
Apologists for the American legal system contend that jurors are good at spotting deception. Unfortunately, research suggests that they are not. In 2006 psychologists Charles Bond and Bella DePaulo reviewed results from hundreds of experiments on people’s attempts to detect lies in real time with no special aids. Under these circumstances, people average 54 percent correct lie-or-truth judgments when 50 percent would be expected by chance. Although lie detection rates vary from study to study, much of the variation appears to be artifactual, and the highest accuracy achieved by any group to date barely exceeds 70 percent. People usually presume that their acquaintances are telling the truth. Most people appear honest even when they are lying, and a few appear dishonest even when they are telling the truth. Individual differences in social competence may underlie differences in apparent honesty, psychologist Robert Feldman has found. Although skills at feigning honesty continue to develop through middle childhood, even three-year-olds can dupe adults, researcher Michael Lewis reports.
Bond, Charles F., Jr., and Bella M. DePaulo. 2006. Accuracy of Deception Judgments. Personality and Social Psychology Review 10 (3): 214–234.
DePaulo, Bella, et al. 2003. Cues to Deception. Psychological Bulletin 129: 74–118.
Godson, Roy, and James J. Wirtz, eds. 2002. Strategic Denial and Deception: The Twenty-First Century Challenge. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.
Lewis, Michael, and Carolyn Saarni, eds. 1993. Lying and Deception in Everyday Life. New York: Guilford.
Rogers, Richard. 1997. Clinical Assessment of Malingering and Deception. 2nd ed. New York: Guilford.
Vrij, Aldert. 2000. Detecting Lies and Deceit: The Psychology of Lying and the Implications for Professional Practice. Chichester, U.K.: Wiley.
Charles F. Bond Jr.
"Lying." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 15, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/lying
"Lying." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/lying
A lie is any deliberate deviation from the truth; it is a falsehood communicated with the intention to mislead or deceive.
Lies differ in type, incidence, magnitude and consequence, with many gradations of severity, from harmless exaggeration and embellishment of stories, to intentional and habitual deceit. Behavioral scientist Wendy Gamble identified four basic types of lies for a University of Arizona study in 2000:
- Prosocial: Lying to protect someone, to benefit or help others.
- Self-enhancement: Lying to save face, to avoid embarrassment, disapproval or punishment.
- Selfish: Lying to protect the self at the expense of another, and/or to conceal a misdeed.
- Antisocial: Lying to hurt someone else intentionally.
Lying is considered by most child development specialists to be a natural developmental occurrence in childhood. Though there is no empirical data about how children learn to lie, parental honesty is recognized as a primary influence on the development of truthfulness in children.
Making up stories is part of a normal fantasy life for young children. It is a positive sign of developing intelligence and of an active and healthy imagination. Preschool children who are beginning to express themselves through language are not yet able to make a clear distinction between reality and make-believe. Storytelling at this age is seldom an intentional effort to deceive. When preschool children do engage in intentional deceit, it is usually to avoid reprimand. They are concerned with pleasing the parent, and may fear the punishment for admitting a mistake or misdeed.
Many children are socialized by their parents at a very early age to tell "white"; lies to avoid hurting another's feelings. "White lies" or "fibs" are commonplace in many households and social settings and are observed and imitated by children. The incidence of prosocial or "white lies," tends to increase in children as they grow older.
Dr. Kang Lee of the Department of Psychology at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, observed young children telling so-called "white lies" to avoid disappointing the researcher. Such prosocial lying behavior occurred in children as young as age three. Dr. Lee's research found that over 60 percent of the 400 boys and girls he studied would pretend to be pleased when asked how they liked a used bar of soap, given as a prize after playing a game with researchers. When parents instructed the children to "be polite" when the researcher asked if they liked the soap, as many as 80 percent of these children, ages three to 11 years of age were dishonest.
Dr. Michael Lewis of Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, has found that as many as 65 percent of the children he studied had learned to lie by age two and one half. This research also reveals a correlation between higher IQ and the incidence of lying in children.
Children from age five or six have learned the difference between lies and truth. The motives for lying in this age group are more complex. Prosocial lying may increase, particularly among peers, to avoid hurting another's feelings. In addition, if a parent's expectations for the child's performance are too high, the child may engage in self-enhancing lies out of fear of censure. School-age children also experiment with selfish lies to avoid punishment, or to gain advantage. They are testing the limits as they try to understand how the rules work and what the consequences may be for stepping out of bounds.
By age seven children have developed the ability to convincingly sustain a lie. This capacity has serious implications with regard to children's competency to testify in a court of law. The veracity of child witnesses and their understanding of the concept of an oath are important research issues. Children at this age recognize the difference between what they are thinking and how they can manipulate the thinking of another to serve their own ends.
The type and frequency of lies and the reasons why a child may be dishonest are also related to their stage of moral development .
Children progress sequentially through several stages of moral development, according to psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg:
- avoiding punishment
- doing right for self-serving reasons
- fitting in with and pleasing others
- doing one's duty
- following agreed upon rules
- acting on principles
Adolescents are developmentally involved in becoming independent persons. They are working hard to establish their own identity, one that is separate from that of their parents. Peer approval is more important than parental approval during adolescence . Conflicts during these years between parental control versus personal autonomy may lead to increased lying to preserve a sense of separation and power from parents, teachers, and other authority figures. Adolescents may also lie to cover up serious behavior problems. A discerning parent will attempt to discover the motive behind the lie.
Childhood lying has many causes, including the need to maintain parental approval, to gain attention, to avoid disappointing others, to evade the consequences of misbehavior, or to avoid responsibility. Older children may lie as a means of breaking away from parental control. Issues of self-esteem , fear of consequences, the desire to have one's own way, the need to gain attention, or to protect oneself from harm, are also a factor. Difficult circumstances in the home and social environment of the child may increase the likelihood of problem lying.
Early intervention in the case of compulsive lying may reduce the risk of the child developing a life-time habit of deceit. Children who are chronic liars are often found to engage in other antisocial behaviors. If a child's lying is accompanied by fighting, cheating, stealing , cruelty, and other impulse control problems, appropriate intervention is required. Lying that is consistently self-serving with no prosocial motive is a serious issue. Lying with malice and without any sign of remorse may indicate that the child has not yet developed a moral conscience, and may need help to move toward a higher stage of moral development, one that includes a concern for the impact of one's actions upon others.
Children become more adept liars with practice. As they grow older it may become increasingly difficult for a parent, teacher or caregiver to detect dishonesty. Close observation and familiarity with the child, as well as an understanding of their developmental stage, are critical to the diagnosis of problem lying.
Most children with the benefit of a loving family environment, one where honesty is valued and modeled and dishonesty is appropriately challenged, will more often than not come to recognize that lying is not an acceptable behavior. Early and appropriate intervention when problem lying persists will increase the possibility that the child will choose honesty in subsequent interactions.
Children may observe much routine dishonesty in the home, school and surrounding culture. Parental examples of honesty in interpersonal relationships are critical if a child is to develop an ethic of truthfulness. Children commonly experiment with lying in the natural course of development. They need help recognizing and understanding the distinction between prosocial and antisocial lying.
Exaggeration and embellishment when relating incidents or telling stories, and the so-called "white lies," told to avoid disappointing or hurting others feelings, do not have the negative, antisocial consequences of serious lying. Parents should intervene when the lying is of a serious nature and explain the impact of dishonesty on another's feelings. This will help the child to develop a moral sense of right and wrong and to value honesty in interpersonal relationships.
Repetitive lying can develop into a serious habit leading to adjustment problems later in life. Lying that persists and worsens year after year is cause for concern. Chronic lying is often accompanied by other antisocial behaviors. Adolescents may lie to cover up illicit drug or alcohol abuse. Early parental intervention in situations of serious lying may interrupt the formation of a habit of lying in young children. Parents who model truth telling and praise honesty will encourage trust in the parent-child relationship.
When to call the doctor
Serious and repetitive lying may require the professional intervention of a school psychologist or a community mental health agency. Counseling may help to uncover any underlying conditions such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (AD/HD), bipolar disorder , or learning disabilities. Pathological lying often accompanies serious psychiatric problems such as conduct disorder or antisocial personality disorder , which normally have their onset during adolescence. Children who use lying as a primary means of avoiding personal responsibility, particularly in adolescence, may be attempting to cover up more serious problems with substance abuse.
Antisocial personality disorder —A disorder characterized by a behavior pattern that disregards for the rights of others. People with this disorder often deceive and manipulate, or their behavior might include aggression to people or animals or property destruction, for example. This disorder has also been called sociopathy or psychopathy.
Conduct disorder —A behavioral and emotional disorder of childhood and adolescence. Children with a conduct disorder act inappropriately, infringe on the rights of others, and violate societal norms.
Prosocial behaviors —Social behavior characterized by positive, cooperative, and reciprocal social exchanges.
Brazelton, T. Berry, M.D. and Joshua D. Sparrow, M.D. Touchpoints Three to Six. Cambridge: Perseus Publishing, 2001.
Rincover, Arnold, Ph.D. The Parenting Challenge, Your Child's Behavior from 6 to 12. New York: Pocket Books, Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1991.
Walker, Hill M., et. al. Antisocial Behavior In School. Second Edition. Belmont, Ca: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2004.
Leutwyler, Kristin. "Why Kids Lie." Scientific American.com November 21, 2000. [cited August 23, 2004]. <www.sciam.com/print_version.cfm?articleID=000A6FF-1457-1C68-B882809EC5>.
Stouthamer-Loeber, Magda. "Lying as a problem behavior in children: A review." Clinical Psychology Review 6, no. 4 (1986): 267-289. [cited August 26, 2004]. </www.0-www.sciencedirect.com.wncln.wncln.org>.
Atkins, Andrea, "Truth & Consequences." Parenting. 13, no. 9 (1999).
Baker, Megan. "Lies in Everyday Life." Capital News 9 Story. 2004. [cited August 17, 2004].
"Children and Lying." American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. no. 44 (November 1995). [cited August 17, 2004]. Available online at <www.aacap.org/publications/factsfam/lying.htm>.
Godber, Yvonne. "Lying, A Handout for Parents and Teachers." National Mental Health and Education Center. National Association of School Psychologists, 1998. [cited August 17, 2004]. Available online at <www.naspcenter.org/lying_ho.html>.
"Growth and Development, Lying and Stealing." Lucile Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford. [cited August 17, 2004] Available online at <www.lpch.org/DiseaseHealthInfo/HealthLibrary/growth>.
Houle, Dr. Thomas. "Lying in children and what to do about it." Ask Dr. Houle, The Houle Psychology Clinic, 2003. [cited August 26, 2004].
"Lying." American Academy of Pediatrics, Medical Library. Excerpt from "Caring for your school-age child: Ages 5-12." Bantam, 1999. [cited August 17, 2004]. Available online at <www.medem.com/MedLB/article>.
McArthur, Greg. "Do Kids Lie? Yes—and they're good at it." The Kingston Whig-Standard. March 8, 2003. [cited August 17, 2004]. Available online at <qsilver.queensu.ca/law/witness/dokidslie.htm>.
McGinley, Susan. "Children and Lying." The University of Arizona College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. May 25, 2001. [cited August 26, 2004]. Available online at <cals.arizona.edu/media/archives/4.3.html>.
"Queen's researchers launch unprecedented study of children testifying in court." Queen's News Centre, Queen's University June 12, 1999. [cited August 17, 2004]. Available online at <qnc.queensu.ca/story_loader.php?id=3d4d476d5289>.
Samson, Jeri and Beth Keen, Ph.D. "Lying And Dishonesty." not MYkid.org. [cited August 17, 2004]. Available online at <www.notmykid.org/parentArticles/Lying/>.
Walbridge, Jean. "On Lying in Adolescence." Mental-healthmatters.com. [cited August 17, 2004]. Available online at <www.mental-health-maters.com/articles/print.pht?artID=142>.
Wood, Derek, RN, BC, MS. "What is Antisocial Personality Disorder?" Mental Health Matters. [cited August 17, 2004]. Available online at <www.mental-healthmatters.com/articles/print.php?artID=51>.
"When does a child know he's lying?" Erikson Institute. [cited August 17, 2004]. Available online at <www.erikson.edu/print.asp?file=qa=2>.
"Lying." Gale Encyclopedia of Children's Health: Infancy through Adolescence. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 15, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/medicine/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/lying
"Lying." Gale Encyclopedia of Children's Health: Infancy through Adolescence. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/medicine/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/lying
ly·ing1 / ˈlī-ing/ • present participle of lie1 . ly·ing2 • present participle of lie2 . • adj. not telling the truth: he's a lying, cheating, snake in the grass. DERIVATIVES: ly·ing·ly adv.
"lying." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 15, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/lying-0
"lying." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/lying-0
de·cep·tion / diˈsepshən/ • n. the action of deceiving someone. ∎ a thing that deceives: elaborate deceptions.
"deception." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 15, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/deception-0
"deception." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/deception-0
of pardoners; company of pardoners, i.e., those who pardon or forgive sins—Bk. of St. Albans, 1486.
"Lying." Dictionary of Collective Nouns and Group Terms. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 15, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/lying
"Lying." Dictionary of Collective Nouns and Group Terms. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/lying
"deception." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 15, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/deception
"deception." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/deception
"lying." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 15, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/lying
"lying." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/lying