The Psychology of Lying

Annie Gurton

Relationship Therapist

When someone lies, there may be several explanations. They may feel inadequate and think its a way to ramp up their social cache. They may have a mental illness. They may want to trick or deceive, or they may have a misplaced sense of fun. But the seriousness depends on whether the individual is aware they are lying, or believes they are telling the truth, or whether they are truly unaware that they are talking in fantasies.


The truth is that we all lie sometimes. It may be to save someone’s feelings from being hurt, or to cover up something socially embarrassing, or to promote ourselves and gain wider and better social acceptance. Mostly it doesn’t matter, and the little lies serve the purpose and are harmless.

There are many psychologically accepted lies and they are called ‘biases’, such as the ‘Fundamental Attribution Error’ in which we tend to take credit for things that go well but blame other factors when they go badly, regardless of the true cause. Our minds are really quite limited and we often don’t know exactly what the truth is. Talk to five people about an accident or an event and you are likely to come up with five different accounts. Its not that they are lying, they just have different versions of the truth.

But when the little lies happen all the time (like, in almost every conversation), and/or affect those around adversely, it becomes a problem that needs to be identified and tackled. There are a few characteristics of the lies which step it from ‘day-to-day’ and socially acceptable lying, to serious and pathological lying which needs professional attention.

Its often best to nip things in the bud. For example, if the liar starts to tell stories which are dazzling, clearly quite improbable and obviously a long way from the truth, the person should be challenged. They should be able to admit that its not true. This is different from the lying which you hear from someone who is mentally unwell and seriously deluded, and is completely convinced that what they are saying is true.

A warning sign that something more sinister is going on is when the liar lies all the time, even over things which cannot be attributed to social pressure, and over things which are unimportant. When the lying becomes chronic and compulsive, and the tendency to fabricate becomes irrational and innate, there is something happening in their personality which would benefit from talking therapy. Its time to get help.

Its also worrying if the liar shows no guilt or compunction about the lies, and the effect that they may have on others. If those around them are significantly affected and the knock-on effects painful or dramatic, and yet the liar shows no emotion or regard for the consequences, its time to call in an expert and insist that events are analysed and reasons found. It may mean going back to childhood, or examining the relationships around the liar to determine the cause.

Sometimes just the realisation that they have been found out and are transparent is enough to make some liars change their ways, but often an intervention is required which requires a commitment to behavioural change. Lying can become an addiction, and like all addictions the first step to sobriety is to admit that there is a problem.  The second thing to do is to identify what the triggers are, and try and avoid them.

The internet doesn’t help. Its far easier for those who like to boast and brag to do so over social media, and the social media itself puts pressure on some to conform by creating situations where people can feel inadequate if they don’t have something to say, true or false. Lying on the internet usually stems from low self-esteem and feelings of poor self-worth, which in turn usually come from not having received sufficient attention earlier on such as in childhood. If someone has received attention and is emotionally resilient they are unlikely to engage in serous lying.

Life is never simple for those who lie a lot. They make problems for themselves, and find themselves having to remember who they told what to. Life becomes complex and stressful. Honesty is the best policy, unless the truth will hurt someone.

The truth is that people lie for many reasons, or for no reason at all. It is not necessarily an indication of a mental disorder but if it is compulsive and frequent it is likely to be rooted in psychological problems, which can be resolved by working with a good therapist.

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