While lies can devastate your emotions and your life, lying can also be a major part of human relationships in that it allows us to function and survive in society and the world. Relationships between teens and their parents appear
to be fertile ground for lying, as teens often play cat and mouse to test the boundaries and see what they can get away with. Relationships between couples can also be magnets for ―little‖ deceptions, from how much someone spent on an outfit or a new set of golf clubs to heartbreaking deceptions of ―indiscretions‖ and adultery. There are also certain occupations that seem to be fertile grounds for liars, from all aspects of the entertainment field; the legal field, where attorneys routinely lie on behalf of their clients; journalism, where reporters misrepresent themselves to gain access to good stories; to law enforcement, whose ranks may omit facts, exaggerate, or outright lie in order to get a confession or to recruit someone to help catch the bad guy. In his 1882 essay ―On the Decay of the Art of Lying,‖ Mark Twain argued that ―everybody lies— every day; every hour; awake; asleep; in his dreams; in his joy; in his mourning.‖ Most of us lie without even realizing it. Someone asks you how you are and you automatically reply, ―Fine.‖ But the truth, of course, is that you are not ―fine‖ at all. You can barely make your monthly mortgage, you think your husband is having an affair, and your child has special needs that aren’t being met. If you told people how you really felt each time someone asked you how you were, you would ruin a passing pleasant interaction and turn it into a depressing and awkward experience for all involved. How many of us tell someone we will call them or see them later when we never have any intention of doing so? We just say it as a nicety in order to be polite. But instead of being polite, we are actually lying. Similarly we will almost always tell someone we haven’t seen in a while that she looks great, when in reality we think she looks awful, with her face all Botoxed and her lips all shot up with collagen to the point we barely recognize her. Probably without realizing it, by mentioning to her that she looks good, we are lying. Perhaps the best illustration of what can happen when someone is too truthful can be seen in the classic 1997 movie Liar Liar, in which comedian Jim Carrey stars as a successful, fast-talking workaholic attorney who builds his career as a habitual liar. He constantly promises his young son that he’ll be with him, yet he always bails at the last minute, even when it comes time for his son’s birthday party. The son makes a magical birthday wish that for one full day his father would not be able to tell a lie. The boy’s birthday wish comes true, and from then on, Carrey’s character can only tell the truth. Everything he does, including admitting that it was he who passed gas on a crowded elevator, lets everyone know exactly what he’s thinking. He even tells a new neighbor the reason everyone likes her is because of her large breasts. He tells one coworker that her hair looks awful, another that he’s too fat, and another one that she’s a slut. He even tells a woman he sleeps with that he had better lovers in the past. While the film is hilarious, it would not be funny or prudent in real life to admit to everyone exactly what you think of them. You would constantly be insulting and hurting everyone’s feelings, hurting your reputation, and, most likely, damaging your own best interests. If you’re like most people, you know that this would be tantamount to social suicide. With that in mind, herein are the seven major reasons adults lie.
- LYING TO AVOID HURTING OTHERS’ FEELINGS: The idea of lying to avoid hurting others’ feeling is perfectly and hilariously illustrated in the classic Seinfeld episode ―Ugly Baby.‖ As characters Jerry, Kramer, and Elaine are huddled over a baby crib looking at a new baby, the mother of the baby suddenly asks the group ―So—who do you think she looks like?‖ The mother expects to hear that the baby looks like either her or her husband, not Lyndon Johnson, as Kramer bluntly blurts out. Jerry tries to dismiss what Kramer says as he politely states, ―She doesn’t look like Lyndon Johnson,‖ to which Kramer immediately retorts, ―Yes, she does.‖
In another episode, Jerry and Elaine go to the Hamptons to visit a new mother, whose baby, based on Jerry and Elaine’s facial expressions upon seeing it, is clearly unattractive. The baby’s mother then asks, ―Isn’t he gorgeous?‖ Elaine struggles and then lies: ―Yes, yes. Gorgeous.‖ Jerry says the same thing and agrees that the baby is gorgeous, when the pained look on his face tells us the baby is anything but gorgeous. It isn’t until Jerry and Elaine are alone that Elaine mentions how she couldn’t even look at the infant ―because it looked like a Pekingese,‖ while Jerry agrees and humorously states, ―There was too much chlorine in that gene pool.‖ Jerry and Elaine don’t share their true feelings about the baby with the mother because they don’t want to insult her or destroy their relationship with her. Instead they do it privately amongst themselves. As adults, most of us live by what we were taught as school children—namely, that it is okay to lie in order to prevent hurt feelings. So when Christmas comes around and we get that ugly knitted sweater or another pair of silly looking socks, we smile and say ―Thank you‖—even though we hate it. We may even send a note or an email stating how much we liked the gift when in reality, we couldn’t wait to regift it. Likewise, most smart boyfriends and husbands have learned the hard way that they can’t always be 100-percent honest when their woman asks if she looks fat today, if he likes her dress, or if he thinks her new haircut is cute. Most of us want approval from our mates and want them to be attracted to us at all times, so if they tell us we look fat or they hate our hair or our outfit, it is often taken as an ego-damaging bullet that can wound our self-esteem and confidence.
- LYING FOR ULTERIOR MOTIVES: People lie not only to avoid hurting other’s feelings, but also in order to build up people’s feelings so that they will respond more favorably to them. They also may do it because they have some ulterior motive, such as keeping their job, making a sale, or even wooing a potential lover. They wield insincere flattery like a weapon to get what they want, get ahead, or gain an added advantage. The first rule of sales is to get the prospective client on your side. There appears to be no better way to do that than flattery and showering the person with compliments. For example, Jeff had a new job as sales representative, and was assigned to follow veteran salesman Mike around. After watching Mike in action and how he flattered a female client, Jeff remarked, ―Sounds like you were seducing her to go on a date, telling her how hot and beautiful she was. Dude, unless someone’s blind, there is no way that woman would be called hot or beautiful, let alone average.‖ Mike immediately replied, ―I don’t care if she looks like a moose. Every lady is beautiful to me when she gives me her credit card and I charge up a sale. Every woman wants to hear that she is hot and looks good, even if it is a lie. It makes them feel good and, most of all, it makes me feel good because my sales figures go up.‖ Flattering the boss, even though you don’t really like him, in order to keep your job; telling a woman she is sexy and beautiful and that you want to spend your life with her, when all you really want to do is get into her pants; or buttering up your dad so he will loan you the car for the evening— all of these are lies that are told for your own gain.
- LYING FOR SELF-PRESERVATION: Lying can be a vital part of human relationships, as we saw in the Seinfeld episodes. It can also be a vital part of our own self-preservation, as the film Liar Liar illustrates. You don’t want to tell your boss that he is a disgusting slimy pig if you intend on keeping your job, but Jim Carrey’s character does just that. Because he cannot tell a lie, he tells his boss (who is sitting in a boardroom with other board members) what he really thinks of him. He blurts out that his boss is a ―pedantic, pontificating, pretentious bastard, a belligerent old fart, a worthless steaming pile of cow dung.‖ After a few
moments of silence and processing what was just said, his boss bursts out in loud laughter and tells Carrey’s character how funny he is and how he ―loves a good roast.‖ While the boss thinks it’s humorous, Carrey’s character is actually being very serious. In real life, most employers would not take kindly to hearing what you really thought of them. If you are too honest, or even if you let your true emotions—especially anger or frustration—show at work, you may soon find yourself out of a job, as Dave did. Dave decided to go out on a limb and share his honest views with his supervisor. He said he didn’t like how he was being treated at work, by working extra hours for little pay; he also said that he didn’t feel the department was being run efficiently, and that there was a lot of time and energy being wasted on nonsense. When the supervisor took issue and tried to defend her department and how she was doing her job, Dave displayed his frustration by raising his voice. He was emphatic about his criticisms and strongly suggested that changes be made, as he thought the company would end up bankrupt if such wastefulness continued. Instead of taking Dave’s honest suggestions to heart, and perhaps making some changes for the good of the company, his supervisor focused on Dave’s anger and raised voice. She shared these concerns with her boss, who ended up firing Dave. In essence, Dave was fired for being too honest with his words and his emotions. Dave was shocked. All he was doing was being honest and helpful—or so he thought. But this event was a life-changing lesson for him. After a year of unemployment, he was finally able to find work. He vowed that from now on, he would to keep his mouth shut and do his job, whether he liked it or not; he also vowed to keep his honest opinions to himself. He learned that if he wanted to preserve his job and keep food on his table, there was such a thing as being too honest. Lying can be key to self-preservation and survival in certain communities. Police are very well aware that many lie after witnessing a crime because their life may well depend on it. The witness who ―talks‖ will be viewed as a snitch, which may often have serious consequences. Being a snitch, or being on the side of the law, can often be a death knell. So people will usually lie and deny seeing or hearing anything, in an attempt to preserve their own lives and the lives of their loved ones. Sometimes people lie to preserve a relationship or a marriage, as Nina did. She didn’t like having sex with her husband first thing in the morning. But this was his favorite time of day to get frisky. To her it was an annoyance, as she was barely awake, didn’t feel presentable, and didn’t have sufficient energy until she had her first cup of coffee. But she obliged anyway because she didn’t want to rock the boat or, worse, cause him to stray from the marriage, or find another woman with whom he could enjoy morning sex. So she went along with it and faked it so she could keep her marriage and her lifestyle intact. The most common lies may be those we tell our ―frenemies‖—people we pretend to be friendly with whom we don’t really like. Perhaps you are in the same social sphere as your frenemy, or perhaps your children play with her children, so you don’t want to rock the boat. Instead, you grit your teeth and lie through them as you engage in those necessary (if galling) pleasantries.
- LYING TO PRESENT A FAVORABLE IMAGE AND AVOID REJECTION: The reason why so many people lie about their weight, their height, their job, and their age online is because they want to present a favorable image to prospective mates. Even though they will inevitably have to tell the truth at some point, they are willing to take the initial risk just for the initial opportunity to connect with someone and not be rejected right off the bat. Marie was very attractive and looked 10 to 15 years younger than her actual 58 years. She was proud of her true age and put it on one of the dating sites. The result was that she didn’t get one response. Then she went on another site and lied. She said she was 45. The response was
overwhelming. Lying about her age stopped the initial online rejections. When she finally met her match (whom she actually ended up marrying), she came clean and disclosed her real age when they went on their first date. Although her husband was taken aback at first, he ultimately appreciated her admission early on in their relationship. He even told her he understood why she did it. He shared that had she put down her real age, he would never have selected her. Many people lie by embellishing their experiences in order to make themselves look like fun and exciting people in the eyes of others. Many do this on social networking sites, such as Facebook, while others lie in person directly to family members, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. Linda took a cruise with her husband to Europe for what she considered to be their second honeymoon. But the trip turned out to be a disaster. She was sick in bed for most of the trip and only saw the ports through her cabin window and in the photos on the travel brochures strewn across her stateroom bed. On the days she was feeling up to getting out of bed, she and her husband constantly bickered and even questioned whether they should stay married to one another. When Linda went back to work and told her colleagues about her trip, you would never know that it was the same trip she and her husband went on. She lied by describing the beauty of each city and what she saw. She talked about how great the food was, when in reality she could barely eat. Finally she raved about how the trip brought her and her husband closer together and how they were now planning to go a third honeymoon. But, truth be told, the only third honeymoon her husband will ever go on will be the one he takes while accompanied by the woman he marries after he divorces Linda. Linda knew her colleagues would be looking for ward to hearing all about the details of the trip when she returned, and she didn’t want to disappoint them. So she put on a show to make herself and her experiences look enviable as possible, as she gave all the juicy details of the trip—all which were lies. Cyclist Lance Armstrong admitted that he continued to lie about his doping because the ―story‖ of a cancer victim who went on to repeatedly win races and start a charity for other cancer survivors was a storyline that sounded good to the public and the press, and made him look noble and heroic. Likewise, famed Notre Dame college football player Manti Te’o claimed that he continued the lie about his girlfriend dying and being buried on the day he won the football game (as fans came out in Hawaiian leis to support him), because he said he felt that the story ―sounded good‖ to fans. He said in interviews that he felt that he would be too embarrassed to admit the truth and didn’t want to disappoint his fans, who obviously appreciated his story. In essence, Manti Te’o wanted the public’s approval, so to avoid any embarrassment, he continued the lie. People often lie or embellish their achievements and omit discussing their failures (or lie about what really happened when they failed) in order to make themselves look good to others, so as to not injure their own ego, their self-perception, and how others perceive them.
- LYING TO AVOID PUNISHMENT : Just as we have seen with animals and toddlers, a strong motivation to lie in adults has its roots in trying to avoid punishment, whether that punishment comes in the form of disapproval from others, the loss of a job, or a prison term. The court system is filled with people who blatantly lie about their innocence in order to avoid punishment. They don’t want to pay a fine or go to jail, so they lie. O.J. Simpson exhibited all the signs of lying about the murder of his wife, Nicole, and her friend Ron Goldman, most likely because he wanted to avoid having to spend the rest of his life in prison (which he ended up having to do anyway for committing another crime). Likewise, President Clinton lied about his affair with intern Monica Lewinsky because he wanted to avoid the punishment of possibly losing his marriage, his family, and the American public’s support. But his lies almost cost him his presidency through impeachment.
This kind of lie is not the sole provenance of the rich and famous, however. Even though Michelle caught her cheating husband red-handed, with records of telephone calls to his mistress, credit card bills from Victoria’s Secret for gifts she never received, and receipts from hotel stays and trips she never went on, her husband refused to admit he was having an affair. He continued to lie in order to avoid the financial and emotional punishment of divorce. Similarly, an armed robber who was caught red-handed (there was even video of him committing the robbery) continued to deny that he did it. He vehemently denied that he was anywhere near the location of the robbery in order to avoid the punishment prison time. Even though most death-row inmates typically have a mountain of evidence against them, most of them will go to their grave proclaiming their innocence. This validates the theory that the perceived harshness of the punishment is directly proportional to the tenacity of the lie.
- LYING TO PROTECT OTHERS: People will go to great lengths to lie in order to protect someone they love or admire. Never was such lying so evident than in the Casey Anthony trial, in which a young woman was accused of killing her daughter. While the court system cleared Casey of all wrongdoing, her mother, Cindy Anthony, a nurse, blatantly lied on the stand by saying that she was the one who had been searching for the word ―chloroform‖ on Casey’s computer. She claimed that she had done this because she suspected that her smallest dog might be getting poisoned from eating bamboo leaves in the backyard. She said her search started with ―chlorophyll‖ which then somehow led to ―chloroform.‖ Cindy Anthony also claimed that a pop-up with the words ―neck breaking‖ appeared on her screen as she was searching for the word ―chloroform.‖ But these statements turned out to be lies. Her nursing supervisor verified that she was at work the day she claimed to be at home on her computer. In addition, a computer forensics expert from Florida’s Orange County Sherriff’s office also confirmed that there had been no pop-up with the term ―neck breaking,‖ but instead that somebody had actively searched for those words. Cindy Anthony’s overt lies were almost certainly motivated by her desire to spare her daughter from death row. In essence, she lied to save her daughter’s life. Another example of someone who was willing to lie at all costs in order to save someone’s reputation and career was Andrew Aldridge Young, a former campaign worker and assistant to former Presidential candidate John Edwards. Young, who was happily married with three children at the time, publicly claimed to be the father of Rielle Hunter’s baby, when in fact it was Edwards’ child. He so admired and respected Edwards that he was willing to risk his own reputation and destroy his own life in order to protect Edwards’ reputation and his bid for the Presidency. By way of contrast, lying in order to protect someone’s life can be a noble and selfless act, especially when you don’t know the person whose life you are saving. There are countless stories of the risks complete strangers took in Eastern Europe during the 1940s in order to save Jews by hiding them. These people were righteous heroes who risked their own lives by lying to the Nazis, with the intention of saving innocent people. A similarly inspiring story took place three decades after the Holocaust. A Canadian housewife and music professor by the name of Judy Feld Carr saved thousands of Syrian Jews from torture and death through her lies. Using a secret identity, she bribed officials and lied to authorities as, one by one, she smuggled and bought the freedom of about 3,000 people who, thanks to her bravery, have since gone on to raise families and create a new generation as they live free and productive lives.
- LYING TO MOTIVATE OTHERS:
In the 1960s the popular cartoon character Popeye told children that they could grow big and strong like him if they just ate their spinach. In an attempt to get their children to eat their vegetables, parents of that era followed suit by telling their children that they would grow bigger, faster if they ate their vegetables. This lie probably motivated many children to eat a healthier diet. Similarly, many doctors lie to patients to encourage them to not give up hope. They may tell a patient that he will walk again, even though his legs have been shattered in an accident. They will lie in order to get the patient to cooperate, to not give up hope and try his best. Many times these positive, motivating lies become positive, self-fulfilling prophecies for the patient. The patient may indeed be able to walk again or at least improve his condition. I have done this myself when I worked in the field of speech pathology early on in my career. I once had a very prominent celebrity client who had suffered a stroke. The stroke severely impeded his ability to speak intelligibly. He was overcome by severe depression and even lost the will to live. Although I was aware of the extent of his brain damage, I told him a ―little white lie‖—a lie that ended up being the catalyst for him to wake up every morning and live to fight through another day. I told him that I was sure he would be on screen again, even though I was not certain that would be the case. I assured him that he had to work hard on his speech and voice exercises and drills, because the public desperately wanted him back. As it turned out he dedicated every waking moment to improving his ability to speak. His progress was remarkable. In a short period of time, this great screen legend actually ended up making a film, in a performance that was well received. In addition, he regularly appeared on television interviews and made countless heartfelt and inspiring acceptance speeches for the numerous awards he received. My ―little white lie‖ had given him hope that there was something ahead that he could look forward to. It gave him that inner fire to never give up, which then allowed him to improve dramatically, relearn how to speak, and then motivate and emotionally touch others in turn.