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May 11, 2010



The old Fox Network series, Lie to Me, was a  compelling drama series inspired by the work of Dr. Paul Ekman, whose lead character, a psychiatrist, was able to read clues embedded in the human face, body and voice to expose the truth and lies in criminal investigations.

Based on extensive research, Ekman found that the micro-expressions associated with some emotions were basic or biologically universal to all humans.

In the series, actor Tim Roth, played Dr. Cal Lightman, the world’s leading deception expert. If you lie to Lightman, he’ll see it in your face and your posture or hear it in your voice. If you shrug your shoulder, rotate your hand or even just slightly raise your lower lip, Lightman will spot the lie. By analyzing facial expressions and involuntary body language, he can read feelings ranging from hidden resentment to sexual attraction to jealousy.

But we do digress. The focus here was not Lie to Me (as fascinating as it was) but lying.  Who lies, how much we lie, what we lie about and – why we lie.

In our work on trust building ,  we’ve had some rich conversations with people about lying. But since we began doing more research for this post, we admit we are both intrigued and disturbed by what we are learning about lying.  Seems like – lots of people are lying. While we don’t want to accuse our readers of being liars, the statistics unfortunately show that lying is becoming more commonplace.

Or maybe it has always been “normal” to lie?

Psychologist Robert Feldman (author of The Liar in Your Life: How Lies Work & What They Tell Us about Ourselves) states that people lie without even thinking about it (which means it’s outside of their conscious awareness).  His research shows that we lie on average 3 times in a 10 minute period when we are becoming acquainted with someone. Dr. Feldman also says we lie less to those we are close to but when we do, the lies are bigger.   Intriguing? Disturbing? See what we mean?

What Do We Lie About?

Looks like we lie about nearly everything.  Here is a general sampling taken from the LIE TO ME website where people submit examples of their biggest “lies.”

  • I created a fake boyfriend on Facebook to make someone jealous, so now all my friends think he’s real. I made two more fake profiles and they’re now “friends” with my friends. I keep lying to myself that they are real people.
  • I got caught smelling like smoke, but lied and said I hadn’t been smoking. However, the truth is that I do smoke
  • I pretend I am blind to get women to have sex with me
  • I tell my mom I’m doing homework when I really go up to my room to watch porn.
  • I broke the company vehicle and told my supervisor it probably was the overnight people who did it and didn’t report it. They lost their jobs.
  • I lie to myself by denying that I have a pain pill addiction, and that I can quit anytime I want. No one knows this.
  • I never went to college. Because I am Asian and we commonly use aliases in lieu of our birth names, I was able to use an older brother’s Ivy League transcript without his knowledge to secure my first job. I now work at a prominent investment bank.
  •  My parents think I skip on church because I’m tired, and my best friends are Mormons. I don’t believe in God, and nobody knows it yet.
  • I fell asleep while boiling eggs in my wife’s favorite pan. It was destroyed, so I buried it in the backyard and told my wife I had no idea where it disappeared to.
  • I wear a fake wedding ring so that when I go out for drinks I have an excuse if I am not interested in someone.

Whew! See the range of lies here. Everything from ruining a pan while boiling eggs to feigning blindness to get sex! BTW – the last one is an oldie with enduring utility.

There is also a lot of lying going on in the workplace. Recent surveys show that about 15% of workers who lie get caught.  The reasons people give for lying at work probably won’t surprise you:

  • People lie about experience and qualifications to get jobs (that’s probably getting harder to do and at the same time there is more urgency to do it)
  • People lie to appease their bosses and co-workers
  • People lie about their mistakes or progress on work projects and things they have done or not done
  • People lie to keep the peace and not hurt others’ feelings

Why Do We Lie?

“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”   Oscar Wilde

Well Oscar, sometimes it is. But more often, the “truth” is far more complex.

Lying, secrets, omissions, fibs, exaggerations, trust, truth are all interconnected. They have everything to do with our values – and our conscious awareness.

In our seminars, most people cite honesty and trust as the two most desirable values they want in workplace relationships. They also add they are in very short supply.

Values drive what we do.  They are about what gives us meaning.  Satisfying our values can be tricky, and internal values conflicts are common.  If two values, honesty and kindness, are very important to me, I can find myself in a difficult position when you ask me how I like your new much-loved snake face tattoo (which I find ugly).  Which value do I honor – honesty or kindness?

Often things are true, but hurtful.  When we choose to spare someone our “truth” are we lying?  Maybe we are exercising our empathy and compassion by masking our true responses in certain situations.  The Buddhists call this “compassionate action.”

No one wants to be called a liar. Unless we have some deeper psychological problems, we all want to think of ourselves in positive terms.  So lying often requires a rich narrative, in other words – the stories we tell ourselves to justify our “lies.”

Research shows that when we lie, our brains work harder.  The latest thinking is that deception and truth telling may arise from different parts of the brain.  We could be wired for truth, which means that we have to exercise a great deal more brain power to rationalize and cover our deceptions – to others and to ourselves.   We’re not genetically programmed (surprised?) to lie. Instead, we learn from models of early deceitful behaviors.

This raises a very compelling question – which parts of ourselves know when we are lying. Is the same part that knows, the part that fabricates and covers up the lie?

Most people would never think of their lying behaviors as malicious. Yet, it is common for people to describe lies in such strong language. That is because lying hurts. Betrayal is a very strong and over-used word but being the recipient of mistruths can feel like being betrayed.  To trust another takes a measure of “faith.”  Too few of us respect this emotional vulnerability in others – and in ourselves.

While some lies are truly ugly and malicious, most lies are more garden-variety. We lie because we are scared of the implications of telling our truth.  Our human vulnerability is always seeking a safe place and a soft landing. We crave acceptance. We desire belonging.  And sometimes lying is just a poorly developed strategy to obtain the love, recognition and affiliation that we all want and as human beings – need – for our survival.

So – what are your thoughts about lying?  What’s your experience of being lied to?

Are some lies acceptable?  Is truth culturally determined?


Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, subscribe, share, like and tweet this article. It’s appreciated.

Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants

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(Related posts: Who Do You Trust? 


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