We’re all liars. Yes, even you.
Why do people lie?
When I asked friends and acquaintances to reveal which lies they tell most frequently, I figured I’d get a lot of joke answers and a few admissions of ego-boosting falsehoods. Instead, what was supposed to be a light-hearted week-long survey became an unexpected lesson in human nature, empathy, and the secrets we all share?—?however unwittingly.
I was inspired to embark on this journey because science had not fulfilled my curiosity. After an afternoon of Googling, I found surprisingly few clinical studies about how and why people lie. In fact, the most relevant study was conducted way back in 2002, by a psychologist at the University of Massachusetts.
Here what you need to know about that 15-year-old study: Dr. Robert S. Feldman secretly filmed conversations between nearly 250 undergraduate students, finding that 60% of the participants lied at least once during a 10-minute conversation. Those liars dished out an average of two to three fibs per chat. Women in the study “were more likely to lie to make the person they were talking to feel good,” while men most frequently fibbed “to make themselves look better.”
So, not exactly groundbreaking work. The results sound a bit like a cold breakdown of a bad 90s dating advice book. Hoping to paint a broader picture of people’s motivations for bending the truth, I decided to ask my own friends and acquaintances: What lie do you tell most frequently? And why do you tell it?
I posted my query on Facebook. The first response came from my college roommate–still one of my best friends. “I tell people that I went to Coachella, but I’ve never been,” Malaka wrote. “It’s easier than them reacting, ‘OMG you lived in Los Angeles and YOU NEVER WENT TO COACHELLA!!?!?!?!”
It was a funny, harmless lie?—?and one I’d totally believed when she’d first told me. But, more significantly, Malaka’s lie was representative of the answers that would come over the next week.
Here’s what my weeklong experiment revealed about why people fib.
They don’t want to disappoint you
Another college friend—just about the most earnest and well-intentioned guy I’ve ever met—responded to my Facebook call. He and I did some political work together in college. While I was mostly interested in provoking the fundamentalist Republicans during the late George W. Bush years, this guy wanted to bring people together. That’s still his fundamental purpose in life, and he spends much of his time working for nonprofits and volunteering.
His response? “The only lie I frequently tell is: ‘I’ll get that to you at such-and-such a time.’ I freely admit: There are many things I don’t get around to at all because I suck as a person.” (Author’s note: This is a lie. He is awesome.)
My friend sets the bar high for himself, and underneath the self-criticism is the desire not to fail or disappoint others.
Many of those I surveyed admitted to lying about exaggerating their expected arrival time at a destination. My friend Emily admitted that when she says she’s a block away, “It’s at least three blocks and two avenues.”
My girlfriend admitted something similar?—?when she’s running late in the morning, she texts her boss that the subways are all screwed up. It’s an unimpeachable lie because it’s so often true.
And no one will ever argue with this lie, which a friend of my girlfriend’s best friend (I cast a wide net) copped to: “Every once in a while I’ll let my manager know that I have to work from home because my daughter is sick…but she isn’t,” the friend wrote over email. “I’ll send her to school, then spend the day to myself, checking emails every once in awhile.”
One guy told me he usually tells volunteers on the street that he’s already signed whatever petition or charity they’re pushing at him, just so they’ll leave him alone.
They want to make themselves or others feel good
One guy admitted to only pretending to be creative, because it seems like everyone in New York writes poetry, and he feels weird for not being artsy.
My friend Emily said she sometimes tells people that a dress she bought at, say, Urban Outfitters was actually her mom’s in the 1960s. Another person wrote that she often downplays how much money she spends on a handbag because she doesn’t want to be judged. She doesn’t want to feel ashamed of herself, or be hassled for doing something that makes her feel good; Emily just wants to feel a little more interesting.
But our falsehoods aren’t always self-interested. I heard from tons of people who regularly tell friends and coworkers that they like their outfits, even if the clothes in question actually offend their own fashion sense.
They don’t want to rock the boat
When I expanded my search to Reddit, I found an even broader range of rationales for dishonesty.
“I tell people I’m OK, and it’s usually because I don’t want to explain what’s upsetting me,” one Reddit user wrote.
Another elaborated further on the same theme: “I say ‘I’m just tired,’ which [means] I’m either upset or annoyed, usually at that person, or at something in the surrounding area that I can’t talk about without offending them or offending someone in the general area.”
From what I can tell, it seems that people mostly lie in order to avoid awkward confrontation, make others feel better or simply so that they will be left alone.
For most people, lying is just a way to get through the day without being bothered or bothering someone else. Then again, there are people like this Redditor, for whom lying can be a form of play:
“I tell everyone I have a bunch of kids…I just do it to see their reaction when they come to my house and find no family pictures [or] even enough bedrooms to house that many kids. The look on their face is priceless.”