Why Do We Lie?

From the smallest white lies to pathological falsehoods, the question is not if we lie, but rather why we lie.

Researchers believe we start lying around age four to test our ability to manipulate the environment, including getting things we want and avoiding things we don’t want (e.g. punishment). As we get older, we tend to be more subtle in those acts of manipulation, primarily to preserve (or boost) our self-esteem but largely for the same reasons we did as four-year olds: to get want we want and avoid what we don’t want. And animals are not much different than humans in that they, too, engage in deception to deliberately mislead.

Interestingly, studies indicate that we are more willing to lie to coworkers and friends than we are to strangers. University of Alberta researcher Jennifer Argo suggests “we want to both look good when we are in the company of others (especially people we care about), and we want to protect our self-worth.”

Another interesting question to consider is how we feel when we know someone is lying to us.

Do we get angry or upset? Do we find ourselves needing to expose the truth? Obviously such a need comes from a negative place within ourselves.

One great mentor of mine always takes this approach: give them the benefit of the doubt, even if the evidence is overwhelmingly against them. Why? Because, unless they are a pathological liar, they know they are lying. By taking the high road, you not only establish your ethical foundation but prevent yourself from getting drawn into worthless trivialities. The truth will eventually prevail.

In the sage counsel of Fyodor Dostoevsky from The Brothers Karamazov:

Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others.

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Anthony Gold presenting the commencement address at
Penn State University - School of Graduate Studies.

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