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Why Do We Lie?

Why Do We Lie?


You’re probably familiar with the classic Disney Movie Pinocchio. This movie is about Pinocchio, a wooden marionette carved by Geppetto. Pinocchio dreams of becoming a real boy and through the magical powers of Jiminy, the cricket, Pinocchio gets to become a real boy… if only for a while. Through his adventures it comes about that every time he lies his nose will grow bigger. In Pinocchio’s story he was usually lying to get out of trouble, which many kids do, or maybe even adults who are pulled over for speeding.

While it’s typical for kids (or even adults) to lie to avoid punishment, there are others who take lying to a whole other level. In 2002, the movie Catch Me If You Can, starring Leonardo DiCaprio was released. In this film DiCaprio plays Abagnale, a successful con-artist, who “earns” millions of dollars by pretending to be a Pan American World Airways pilot, a Georgia doctor, and a Louisiana parish prosecutor. As you watch this movie it seems astounding how much fraud DiCaprio’s character gets away with, however, what is even more astounding is the fact that the movie is based on a true story!

DiCaprio’s role of Abagnale, is actually based on Frank William Abagnale Jr. (born April 27, 1948). Abagnale claims that between the ages of 15 and 21 he assumed at least eight different identities. During this time the US government managed to arrest him, but he escaped from police custody twice, once from a U.S. federal penitentiary. Eventually after serving less than five years in prison, the federal government actually asked him to work for them. He is currently an American security consultant. Furthermore, he is a lecturer for the FBI academy and field offices, along with also running his own financial fraud consultancy company named Abagnale & Associates. Or at least we think he is…

Why do children lie?


While Pinocchio is not a real-life story, it’s a well known fact that children lie. You yourself have probably told at least a few white lies. As we can see from these real world circumstances, lying can range from white lies, which most people don’t consider harmful, to major lies, like Abagnale’s schemes. Two questions arise:

  • Why do people lie?

  • What determines the size of a lie that a person is willing to tell?

Let’s investigate these questions by beginning with children. Lying in children develops as they grow older with each stage containing more advanced lies. According to Elizabeth Berger, M.D., a child psychiatrist and author of Raising Kids With Character, it’s normal for toddlers around the ages of 2 or 3 to being telling small fibs. Toddlers tend to tell fibs to get out of trouble. For instance, saying they didn’t eat an extra cookie… even if you sat right there and watched them eat it. However, Berger says that it doesn’t makes sense to punish toddlers for lying, as they don’t know they are doing anything wrong.

Preschoolers between the ages of 3 to 5 tend to have vivid imaginations and tell tall tales. For instance, many of us had imaginary friends at this age and while these ideas of imaginary friends are pure play, it’s also possible for children to engage in wishful thinking through their fantasies. For instance, I’ve heard my 4-year-old cousin talk about how her doll gets to eat cupcakes for dinner, and this is most likely because she wishes she could eat cupcakes for dinner. According to Dr. Berger these tale tales aren’t really lies, they’re imagination.

School age kids, between 6 and 8 years old, tend to tell more advanced lies. During this age range children begin to tell white lies or prosocial lies. Telling such lies is actually part of a developmental step. Since these lies are told to avoid hurting someone's feelings, they show that the child is developing social awareness and sensitivity. Children in this age range still tend to lie if they're afraid of disappointing someone or of receiving punishment. They might even lie because they're pressed beyond their capabilities. For instance, if they attend a bunch of extra-curricular activities after school, they might lie and say they don’t have homework because they are tired and want to rest.

Tweens, between 9 and 12 years old, begin to lie by omission. Lying by omission refers to when someone tells you the truth, but omits important information. For instance, asking to stay at a friend’s house, but omitting the detail that the friend’s parents will be out of town. Dr. Brody notes that children’s secretiveness at this age isn't dishonesty or a sign that they are up to anything wrong. This is a normal stage of development and, in fact, reflects their increasing maturity. This is the age range where children develop concrete ideas of truth and falsehood, but are still confused about the gray areas in-between, which there are a lot of.

These sentiments about children lying are also reflected in an article on the NPR website entitled, When Children Begin To Lie, There's Actually A Positive Takeaway. This article was written by Dr. Marjorie Rhodes and includes explanations of experiments conducted by other researchers and also herself and her colleagues. Rhodes states that lying in early childhood reflects an important milestone in cognitive development. A child’s ability to lie actually signifies that they now understand that other people have different beliefs than they do. At this stage children start to understand that beliefs don’t directly reflect reality and that everyone’s beliefs are different. This milestone in mental development is actually very important, as understanding that others’ beliefs are different than one’s own leads to more effective communication, better relationships with peers, and more elaborate and collaborative pretend play.

So, surprisingly, the ability to lie and the ability to be a good social partner are actually two sides of the same coin. They both require understanding both others’ and one’s own mental states. However, while most people tell a few white lies per day, some people are pathological liars. Pathological lying is the behavior of habitual or compulsive lying, which has no obvious benefit for the liar. Furthermore, pathological liars tend to lie without a purpose. Pathological lying on its own is not enough for a person to receive a clinical diagnosis though. However, often times people who are pathological liars tend to have clinically diagnosable disorders such as, psychopathy, the manic stage of bipolar, or various personality disorders (antisocial, narcissistic, and histrionic).

Psychologists still don’t fully understand why pathological liars lie, which is probably partially due to the fact that pathological lying can manifest on its own or a symptom of varying clinical disorders. It’s hard to determine a pattern or reason for pathological lying across such broad areas. Some psychologists see pathological lying as a chronic behavior which is compulsive in nature. However, there is controversy over the idea that pathological liars know that they are lying. In some cases it is believed that the liar begins to believe their own lies, confusing reality with fiction, which is a delusional behavior. Some psychologists believe that some pathological liars may begin to believe their own lies in order to relieve themselves of guilt while other psychologists don’t believe pathological liars feel guilt.

Lying is physiological?

Recent studies have started to show that lying might be a result of neuroanatomy. A study conducted in 2005 with criminals and people with antisocial behaviors had some interesting results. Using brain scans, this study showed that the prefrontal cortexes in frequent liars are built differently from those in a typical brain. In this study liars had 22% more white matter and 14% less gray matter than average people. White matter is like the wiring of the brain and gray matter tends to play a role in in impulse control. Other research suggests that pathological liars suffer from a minor memory deficit and also impairment in the frontal lobes. The frontal lobes are used to critically evaluate information, so in this case, it seems pathological liars may not be able to remember events accurately or critically evaluate information. In short, these people can’t assess the accuracy of what they say and therefore, may not even realize that they are lying.

6 reasons pathological liars lie

Dr. David Ley, who has worked with many pathological liars, has attempted to understand why they lie from a psychological perspective. According to him there are six reasons pathological liars tend to lie. He lists these reasons as follows:

  1. The lie does matter ... to them: although other people might not think the issue is important, it is critically important to them;

  2. Telling the truth feels like giving up control: often times people lie to keep control of a situation;

  3. They don’t want to disappoint you: they are worried that you might reject or shame them if you find out the truth;

  4. Lies snowball: sometimes the situation might start with small lies, but then the person has to lie to cover-up that lie, and so on and so on, until the lie gets out of control;

  5. It’s not a lie to them: people’s memories are unreliable, especially under stress, so it might be that the liar actual doesn’t remember the situation correctly; and

  6. They want it to be true: they might want so badly for their lie to become true that they start believe it themselves.

So, why do we lie?

In conclusion, it turns out that children developing lying behavior is actually a completely normal part of their developmental process. At the later stages, the ability to lie actually reflects a child’s ability to understand that other people don’t have the same beliefs as them. Therefore, what gives a person the ability to lie, also gives them the ability to be a prosocial helper. Furthermore, all of us tend to tell a few white lies throughout the day, but most people will not lie to hurt someone. Interestingly, it turns out that people who are pathological liars aren’t necessarily trying to hurt other people. However, of course, if someone is displaying characteristics of pathological lying, it is very important that they see a psychologist to address any underlying mental health issues and the lying itself.

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