Jonathan Levy LCSW on Why We Lie
We can usually always admit that we were dumb as kids. In my case, I had a habit of doing something wrong and then completely denying my actions. In one case, my mother began to keep lemon candy in her purse, which she would distribute in small numbers during the day. They weren’t very good but, hey, better than nothing.
The trouble for me was I knew she kept them in her purse—and I knew where she kept her purse. So, over the course of one weekend, I managed to steal the entire package, bit by bit.
Then she ran out. No candy. Apocalypse Now.
The funniest part of the story is I steadfastly swore that I had not taken any candy. Even if everyone knew I liked them, and knew I was capable of taking them without asking, and could see guilt written on my face—nope not me. Someone else must have taken them.
I can’t remember the punishment but my mother no longer carried candy so frivolously out in the open.
We are all familiar with lying. Each of us has told a lie. But what is the motivation behind lying?
A recent article in National Geographic looks at the scientists attempting to study the reason we lie. The stories are at times famous. The Yale student who fabricated his entire life, becoming a local celebrity in New Haven, only to be discovered he was just a regular guy from Utah with a police record. The fine arts dropout who spent years forging important works of art in order to donate them to galleries. He enjoyed, it seems, the simple pleasure of seeing art on display that may have well come from Kinkos.
The most interesting part of the article is the data compiled about the motivation for lying.
Roughly 8 percent of those who lie can be deemed pathological or malicious. These we may set aside, as they are categorized as cases of unique psychological or personal trauma. Occasionally, these individuals are seeking professional help for this, though the reason for these issues are poorly understood. Still, when it comes to these cases, they are not uncommon, but not the kind of persons we meet every day.
Only 2 percent of the cases of lying are categorized as social or polite lies. Things like telling your grandmother the rumpled hat looks pretty on her.
Several other percentage points go to harmless things like humor or illustrations meant to convey stories. There are competitions, for example, to find the person who can “spin the best yarn” on the spot.
The interesting point the article makes, however, is that more than 75 percent of the reasons why we lie are to protect ourselves from justified harm or to gain something not our own.
14 percent are for avoidance to to escape people who want to spend time with us (“No, I’m busy tonight”) 22 percent are to avoid being exposed for personal transgressions (“I did not eat the lemon candy”) 16 percent are for economic advantage (“Yes the car is in mint condition”) 15 percent are for personal advantage that do not involve money (“Notice me! I’m important!”) 8 percent are to give others a positive self-impression (Instagram pics of your quiet time)
The interesting feature of this data is that most people fall into this category, yet most people assume they do not. Convincing ourselves that we are lying merely out of convenience—or giving ourself allowance because others do it too—are all factors that drive us to lie.
The other feature noted in the article is that the truth is, not surprisingly, easier. Much easier, actually. It takes only the effort of our memory to tell the truth. To lie, though, takes a compound effort of a willful heart, an inventive mind, and the desire to stick to the lie until all options are exhausted.
After reading the article, I was struck by how many people use deceit and lies. I was struck, too, how easily it is to convince ourselves we are not the ones who fall into this category.
The data tell a different story.
Not only is everyone capable of lying, the research points to the fact that everyone has a propensity to lie. As the article points out, “human beings . . . universally possess a talent for deceiving one another.” We also have, based on these lies, the ability to convince ourselves that we are perfectly honest in most of the circumstances we face.
Article originally posted at TGC.