views updated May 18 2018






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 liars 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. Marstons 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 Academys view, polygraph examinations are poorly suited for screening large populations of people that include only a small percentage of liars.

Soon after Marstons 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 Mays 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 Clintons 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 nosewhich the authors dubbed a Pinocchio phenomenon.

Although Hirsch and Wolfs videotape analysis is certainly provocative, it reflects a single case. One wonders if the 20 behaviors that accompanied Clintons 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 witnesss 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 anothers truthfulness. Some marriages end in a month and others last fifty years because of the partners beliefs about one anothers 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 defendants 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 peoples 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): 214234.

DePaulo, Bella, et al. 2003. Cues to Deception. Psychological Bulletin 129: 74118.

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.


views updated May 29 2018


An act contrary to truthfulness, or the virtue of veracity, consisting in the communication to another of a judgment that is not in accord with what the one who communicates thinks to be true.

Nature. In its most common and explicit form, lying involves either spoken or written words; but it is possible to lie in using other forms of communication, for example, in gestures or in actions that involve a pretension to distinguished qualities which a person does not possess. The communication of something other than what one holds to be true is essential to lying, although what is said need not be contrary to objective truth. A lie differs from an erroneous statement. It can exist even though what is said happens to be in accord with fact; on the other hand, despite objective error, a communication is not a lie unless the speaker is aware that what he says is false.

It has been disputed whether the intention to deceive is essential to a lie. Actual deception, of course, is not, since this is the effect of lying rather than the act itself. But as to the intention, some Scotists have taken St. Augustine's words (De mend. 4) "with a will to deceive" as equally essential to lying as the other part of his statement, "the enunciation of something false." Judged in its immediate context, as well as in that of his other writings, St. Augustine's statement is a restricted affirmation about harmful lying rather than a definition of lying in general. St. Thomas clearly taught that the will to deceive was not essential to lying (Summa theologiae 2a2ae,110.1), and Scotus appears to have been in accord with this view. Some Scotists, however, claiming the authority of St. Augustine, taught that the intent to deceive is of the essence of lying rather than a property of it. Almost all theologians, nevertheless, follow St. Thomas in his interpertation of St. Augustine upon this point, and affirm that a deliberately false utterance is the essence of a lie, but that the intention to deceive belongs to the perfection of lying, not to its essence.

If deception or the intent to deceive is not essential to lying, there can be a lie that deceives no one, and that is told without an intention to deceive. On the other hand, deception can occur where no lie is actually told. For example, a person could tell a truth with sufficient clarity to avoid making a false statement and sufficient ambiguity and evasiveness to avoid revealing a truth which he wants to keep hidden. The hearer might misinterpret what is said and so be deceived, yet the speaker has not lied (see mental reservation).

Kinds of Lying. From the point of view of the virtuous "mean," formally constitutive of truthfulness, lying is opposed to truthfulness by excess or defect. Excess consists in boasting, or in the willful exaggeration of a truth. Defect occurs in disparagement or "irony."

The more important division of the lie is based upon its effect, or the motive of the one who lies. Least among lies is that which is told in jest or for the purpose of amusement (mendacium iocosum ). If a story is obviously fiction, then there is no lie, since the literary genre of a story requires only internal consistency, not conformity to reality. But if illusion is allowed to substitute for reality, or if a story leaves a reader confusing fact with fiction, there has been a violation of truthfulness.

A more serious offense against truthfulness is the lie whose author intends some useful good, and to achieve it is willing to speak falsely. Useful and harmless according to strict justice, the so-called "officious" lie (mendacium officiosum ) is intended to gain some good or to protect oneself or others from harm. The motive in this case could be commendable from a moral point of view. This would mitigate the malice of the act, but if a lie is intrinsically evil, it cannot become a good act, however virtuous its motive, for the end cannot justify the means. The most malicious kind of lie is that which is directly and explicitly intended to do harm to another. This is the "pernicious" lie (mendacium perniciosum ).

Moral Evaluation

The morality of lying can be considered either from the point of view of authority, or from that of rational argument. In surveying the opinion of moral authorities, profane and sacred, account must be taken of the fact that different authorities, in condemning the lie, may have had in mind some specific form of lying, and not the lie in general.

Plato and Aristotle. Plato, in the Republic, appears to have regarded lying as a socially subversive practice when indulged in by private citizens, but that the privilege of lying for the public good should be accorded to rulers (Republic, 388). Aristotle, on the other hand, declared that falsehood was of its own nature (intrinsically?) bad and reprehensible (Eth. Nic. 4.7).

The Scriptures. The sinfulness of lying is attested to in a number of passages in Sacred Scripture: in the OT, Prv 6.12, 17; Ps 5.7; Sir 7.13; Wis 1.11; in the NT, Eph4.25; Col 3.9. The scriptual evidence, however, is not satisfactory, because it is not clear that what is condemned is the lie as such, i.e., as unqualified by the malice of injustice. In some cases, at least, the sacred writer must have had in mind only the pernicious lie, since the degree of malice he attributes to it is far greater than traditional doctrine and common sense would allow for a lie that intends or causes no harm. For example: "You destroy all who speak falsehood; the bloodthirsty and the deceitful the Lord abhors" (Ps 5.7). And: "A lying mouth destroys the soul" (Wis 1.11). Thus the ambiguity of the Scriptures upon this matter has left room for debate both in patristic and in modern times.

In Patristic and Scholastic Times. In the patristic age, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and St. John Chrysostom in the East, and St. Hilary and Cassian in the West seem to have held (but not without some ambiguity) that in certain exceptional cases a lie was justifiable. St. Augustine held to the stricter view that a lie is intrinsically evil. In this he was followed by SS. Thomas Aquinas, Raymond of Peñafort, and Antoninus, as well as by Scotus, Cajetan, Suárez, John of St. Thomas, and by all but a few modern Catholic theologians.

Moral Gravity. Although Christian tradition has, in the main, held firmly to the conviction that a lie is intrinsically evil, the judgment of moralists is relatively lenient with regard to the degree of malice inherent in the lie. The common teaching is that a lie, deliberately told, is per se no more than venially sinful. It is damaging in some degree to man's social good, but it does not strike at the very existence of that good, as do theft, adultery, and murder. However, circumstances might involve the violation of virtues other than truthfulness in a particular lie. For example, the pernicious lie violates justice and charity as well as truthfulness, and for that reason is a grave sin when the damage done or attempted is notable. Similarly, a lie could be a mortal sin because it causes serious scandal, or because it is contrary to faith or to the virtue of religion (see perjury), or because, in serious matter, it violates another's strict right to be informed of the truth.

Modern Controversy. Dissatisfied with the theory and the use of mental reservations in order to conceal the truth in difficult cases, some authors have accepted the admissibility of an intentionally false statement whenever the hearer has not a strict right in justice to know the truth. For them the malice of lying is not the violation of a personal obligation to veracity, but a violation of a strict right on the part of another to be informed of a particular truth. H. Grotius and S. Pufendorf, among Protestant thinkers, as well as some Catholics have maintained that in a case of necessity a false statement, falsiloquium, may be without moral fault. The falsiloquium is for them a "psychological" rather than a "moral" lie, and the latter they continue to reprobate along with all other Christian thinkers. Since the strict obligation not to lie does not depend upon the strict right of another to know a truth but upon one's nature as a rational social being, theologians generally have rejected the distinction between psychological and moral lies as unfounded in sound moral theory, at least if it is made to rest upon the hearer's right to be accurately informed.

Others, acknowledging the obligation to speak the truth, if one speaks at alland this independently of any right on the part of the one to whom a statement is madenevertheless point out that a person obliged to speak only the truth may also be under an obligation to conceal a truth, and this latter obligation may in some cases be more urgent and more sacred than the former. If we suppose a case in which the truth, or evasion, or silence, would bring harm upon a neighbor, the obligation in charity to prevent this, they say, would take precedence over the obligation in veracity, and the latter would be suspended and cease for the time being to bind.

However, this theory provides escape from moral perplexity only when a strict obligation exists to conceal the truth; it does nothing to enable an individual to protect his privacy against prying or intrusive people, a thing that most of those who defend lying in certain circumstances would like to do. But the more important objection to it is that it cannot be adopted without abandoning the traditional doctrine that a lie is intrinsically evil, so that the reaction of the Christian conscience to it is likely to be that of St. Augustine: "He who says that there are some just lies must be regarded as saying that there are some just sins, and, consequently, that some things which are unjust are just. What could be more absurd?" (C. mend. 15.31.)

Argument from Reason. The most fundamental argument is that drawn from man's social nature. The social order that human nature requires for its proper development and fulfillment demands that mutual trust and confidence and a general friendly good will should prevail between men. This, however, is undermined not only by the pernicious lie that damages the rights and reputations of others, but also by officious and jocose lies, because if one were under no obligation to refrain from such lies, an individual's confidence in the communications made to him would be considerably lowered. Every statement would have to be weighed with suspicion, and this would, in effect, debase the currency of communication. Man's faculty of speech or communication would be perverted in the sense that the prevalent mendacity would make it impossible or difficult to communicate with others. This is a situation that has in fact come to pass in matters with regard to which "white" or "social" lies are in common use. Words lose their meaning and their capacity to convey thought. Richard Cabot has pointed out the dilemma that physicians create for themselves when, for humane reasons, they lie to patients suffering from incurable disease (see bibliography). When this practice comes to be generally known, the physician has no effective way of reassuring a patient who suspects that he has contracted such a disease and that his physician is concealing this fact.

Difficult Cases

It cannot be denied that the doctrine of the intrinsic malice of the lie can involve a conscientious person in moral dilemmas. However, the frequency and seriousness of these troublesome situations should not be exaggerated, and from most of them escape of one kind or another is available without lying.

The "Social" Lie. In many cases a statement, whose literal sense is not in accord with facts as the speaker knows them, is nevertheless not a lie because social convention permits certain kinds of expressions to be used, and requires people of good sense to understand them, in other than a literal sense. This conventional meaning is not false; ultimately all meaning that attaches to words is determined by convention. No prudent person would take in their strict and literal sense complimentary forms of address such as "your devoted servant" or even "yours." Nor would a serious person take seriously many of the amenities common in social intercourse: compliments about dress or appearance, or the remarks about the pleasantness of an evening made by a departing guest.

Similarly the statement made by one answering the door or the telephone that a member of the family is not at home has acquired by general use (or misuse) a certain objective ambiguity. It may either mean that the person is literally not at home, or that, though at home, he does not want to see or talk with the caller, but wishes to signify his refusal in the polite manner sanctioned by social custom. In this situation, however, the status of the person calling could affect the objective sense of the statement. If he is a person who should not be refused, he will be entitled to understand the statement in its literal sense, and if the speaker knows it to be untrue, it will be a lie.

Professional Secrecy. Mental reservation, or the restriction of one's understanding of the meaning of a question put to him, and the sense of his reply, will enable a person to avoid other difficulties. Clergymen, lawyers, physicians, nurses, pharmacists, secretaries, and others are obliged to professional secrecy with regard to certain information that they may possess. This is understood by all reasonably well-informed people. When such a person is questioned about matter he knows only under professional secrecy, he can legitimately (and charitably) interpret the inquiry to mean: Have you any communicable knowledge about this subject? He may, consequently, frame his answer accordingly, and deny that he has knowledge of it. Because of the objective nature of the situation, the hearer ought to understand the statement to be ambiguous. It may be an absolute denial of knowledge, or it may only be a denial of communicable knowledge.

Non-Professional Secrets. It seems unreasonable to restrict the use of this kind of evasion to the protection of professional secrets. Others besides professional people have in their keeping secrets it would be sinful, even gravely so, to reveal. For example, revelation of the hidden sin of another could amount to a mortal sin of detraction. Everyone should be aware of the obligation to secrecy that exists in certain cases, and should be sensitive to the possibility that questions he asks might put another in a moral quandary. A well-intentioned and reasonable man can therefore be understood, when he puts a question, to be asking for information that his hearer is morally free to divulge. Hence a denial of knowledge could reasonably be understood as objectively ambiguous, just as in the case of the professional secret.

Other Dilemmas. There is another type of difficulty in which ambiguity provides no refuge. For example, let us suppose that a man is hidden from a gang of murderers intent upon killing him, and his friend is questioned concerning his whereabouts, or that a person working with the underground in an area occupied by the enemy is interrogated by enemy officials about the resistance movement. No doubt the type of evasion discussed above could legitimately be used in these cases also, but their particular difficulty consists in this that no simple denial of knowledge would be likely to suffice to put the miscreants off the scent. Denials would need to be backed by strong, circumstantial affirmations that no stretch of ingenuity could classify as ambiguous, and perhaps positive misinformation would have to be invented and palmed off for true. If one holds to the doctrine of the intrinsic malice of the lie, there would seem to be no escape possible in these cases, unless it lies in questioning whether, in such circumstances, the idea of true human speech or communication is verified.

A lie is essentially a false communication. A man, speaking falsely to himself, does not lie. Similarly, it could be argued, it is no lie to speak falsely to another when some circumstance prevents one's speech from being, in a true sense of the word, a communication. As has been shown, false communication is immoral because it subverts the mutual trust and confidence that should exist between men, and tends to make communication impossible. Now in the extremely difficult situations being considered, there is no mutual trust or confidence to destroy. In fact, a maximum of distrust prevails between the parties, and no man in such a position could prudently take the words of the other at their face value. In such a case, words would cease, to a degree, to be a medium for the exchange of thought. Communication would be broken down, and to the extent in which the communication of mind with mind has become impossible, it would be equally impossible to realize the idea of a lie. In particular cases the breakdown of communication or its degree might be difficult to determine, but it seems incontestable that if no communication in the ordinary sense of the word is possible, there can be no lie.

However, these cases are altogether exceptional, and if special norms are found to apply to them, these must not be extended to include situations in which one cannot refrain from lying without involving himself (or even others) in trouble and difficulty. The practice of virtue of any kind is likely to require a measure of heroism in some circumstances. At times the obligation to truthfulness may impose some hardship, but the endurance of this is a small price to pay for the blessings which society and individuals enjoy when its members "speak the truth each one with his neighbor" (Eph 5.25).

Bibliography: augustine, "Lying" (De mend. ), tr. m. s. muldowney, Treatises on Various Subjects, ed. r. j. deferrari (Fathers of the Church, 16; New York 1952); "Against Lying" (C. mend. ), tr. h. b. jaffee, ibid. thomas aquinas, Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 110; Quodl. 8.6.4; In 5 eth. 4.15. j. a. dorszynski, Catholic Teaching about the Morality of Falsehood (CUA Stud. Sac. Theol. 2d ser. 16; Washington 1948). j. h. newman, Apologia pro vita sua (Garden City, NY 1956). j. brosnan, "The Malice of Lying," The Irish Ecclesiastical Record 4 (1914) 377392. l. godefroy, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant, 15 v. (Paris 190350; Tables générales 1951) 10.1:555569. r. cabot, Honesty (New York 1938).

[d. hughes]


views updated May 18 2018



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.

School-age 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.

Common problems

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.

Parental concerns

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.



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Walker, Hill M., et. al. Antisocial Behavior In School. Second Edition. Belmont, Ca: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2004.


Leutwyler, Kristin. "Why Kids Lie." Scientific November 21, 2000. [cited August 23, 2004]. <>.

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Clare Hanrahan


views updated May 17 2018


Lying may be defined as the making of a declarative statement to another person that one believes to be false, with the intention that the other person believe that statement to be true, and the intention that the person believe that one believes that statement to be true. Lying may be distinguished from other forms of intentional deception insofar as it involves the use of conventional signs arranged to make a statement. Intentional deception using natural signs, such as fake smiling, shamming a limp, or wearing a disguise, does not count as lying. Intentional deception using conventional signs that are neither spoken nor written, such as deceptively nodding one's head, sending deceptive smoke signals, or deceptive signaling by semaphore, does count as lying, at least insofar as one is making a statement.

Lying requires that a statement be made; hence that form of deception that consists in withholding a statement from another person with the intention that the other person infer a believed falsehoodsometimes called a lie of omission or a concealment liedoes not count as lying. Exaggerating, being misleading, hedging, or being evasive, with the intention that the other person infer a believed falsehood, also does not count as lying. Lying does not require that the statement that is made is false, but it does require that the statement made is believed to be false rather than merely not believed to be true, or believed to be possibly false or probably false. Lying does not require that the other person is real, only that the other person is believed to be a person and is believed to be real. This does not resolve the questions of whether one can lie to no other person in particular (for example, by publishing a believed false account of an event), or whether there can be intrapersonal lying (for example, an earlier self lying to a later self).

The most important philosophical discussions of lying are to be found in St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Immanuel Kant. Aquinas differed from Augustine and Kant in holding that making a declarative statement to another person that one believes to be false is sufficient for lying; no further deceptive intention is needed. All three held that lying is wrong and that one should never lie; however they distinguished between not lying or being truthful, which is required, and being candid or volunteering believed truths, which is not. Augustine and Aquinas held that some lies, such as lies told to save the lives of innocents or lies told to avoid being defiled, that do not harm the particular person(s) lied to, are less egregious than other lies, such as malicious lies and lies told in the teaching of religion. All three argued that lying is a perversion of the faculty of speech, the natural end of which is the communication of thoughts. Augustine and Kant argued that in telling a lie one harms oneself, and undermines trust in society; hence there can never be a harmless lie. Kant also argued that a person cannot consent to being told a particular lie; hence in lying to another person one is necessarily treating that person as a mere means to one's end.

See also Deontological Ethics; Duty; Kantian Ethics; Moral Rules and Principles; Self-Deception; Virtue and Vice.


Adler, J. E. "Lying, Deceiving, or Falsely Implicating" Journal of Philosophy 94 (1997): 435452.

Aquinas, St. Thomas. "Question 110: Lying." In Summa Theologiae, edited by Thomas Gilby. Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1969.

Augustine, St. "On Lying and Against Lying." In Treatises on Various Subjects, edited by R.J. Deferrari. New York: Fathers of the Church, 1952.

Bok, S. Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life. 2nd ed. New York: Vintage Books, 1999.

Chisholm, R. M., and T. D. Feehan. "The Intent to Deceive." Journal of Philosophy 74 (1977): 143159.

Frankfurt, H. G. "The Faintest Passion." In Necessity, Volition, and Love. Cambridge, U.K.; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Kant, I. Immanuel Kant, Practical Philosophy, edited by Mary Gregor and Allen W. Wood. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Mahon, J. E. "Kant on Lies, Candour, and Reticence." Kantian Review 7 (2003): 101133.

Mannison, D. S. "Lying and Lies." Australasian Journal of Philosophy 47 (1969): 132144.

Siegler, F. A. "Lying." American Philosophical Quarterly 3 (1966): 128136.

James Edwin Mahon (2005)


views updated May 29 2018

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.


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de·cep·tion / diˈsepshən/ • n. the action of deceiving someone. ∎  a thing that deceives: elaborate deceptions.


views updated Jun 11 2018


of pardoners; company of pardoners, i.e., those who pardon or forgive sinsBk. of St. Albans, 1486.