Motivation and emotion/Book/2013/Lying

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What motivates people to tell lies?

Overview[edit | edit source]

This book chapter aims to explore why individuals are motivated to lie to each other. It looks into the prevalence of lying in everyday life specifically the role of social desirability or our desire to be wanted and appreciated by others as well as well as the motivator of learnt social etiquette. The chapter looks at how these main two and other minor motivators work in specific contexts such as on the internet, in close relationships, in children and how personality traits as well as gender affect acceptance and willingness to lie.

What motivates lying to others in social situations?[edit | edit source]

There is an anecdotal phrase “the most told lie in the world is “I’m fine”” when really we are not fine at all, so why say it? DePaulo et al. (1996) found that on average individuals reported telling a lie of some form in one of every five social interactions and one in three interactions for college student samples, additionally individuals were twice as likely to lie when it would be beneficial for the self (self-focused lies) to do so in comparison to when the lie would benefit others (other orientated lies) Results from Hample’s (1980) work supported DePaulo et al’s (1996) and suggested that at least two out of three lies are given for selfish reasons however, Greenglass’ (1972) work indicated that at least in children they were often willing to lie to help another child avoid punishment creating a higher rate of other orientated lies. Hample (1980) found with a sample of forty two lies that individual’s motivation to lie could be sorted into four categories which he sorted in terms of frequency; those that benefitted the individual lying, benefitting the target of the lie, benefitting the relationship and miscellaneous motivations. Turner et al. (1975) however sorted their data into five categories; to save face (55.2), to avoid tension or conflict (22.2), to guide the conversation (9.9) to affect their interpersonal relationship (9.6) or to gain power over the target of the lie (3.2).

Social Desirability[edit | edit source]

two people telling lies to be best friends for life

DePaulo et al. (1996) found that when individuals lied it was often to increase their esteem in the eyes of others, over exaggerating or creating false stories of achievement or lying about how they felt. Individuals lied claiming to feel more positively then they really did or agreeing with others rather than voicing disagreement which suggests that social desirability is a main motivator for lying. In support of the social desirability as motivation hypothesis Tice et al. 1995 showed that individuals told more self-enhancing lies to people they did not know and less when talking to someone they felt close to. Milla and Tesser (1988) thought that individuals likely lie when they fear the truth will violate the other parties expectations resulting in a negative image and found support for this hypothesis in their research however their interpretation of the results suggested that this would cause higher rates of lying when interacting with people the individual was close to, alternatively it is possible that when close to someone and individual is less likely to lie as they have realistic expectations within the relationship resulting in less anxiety around breaching others expectations (DePaulo & Kashy, 1998). Some participants in Utz’s (2005) research chose to deceive others over the internet by telling lies about their wealth, age, occupation and other personal details often choosing to present themselves as an ideal self, much like the individuals in DePaulo et al’s study.

Social Etiquette[edit | edit source]

Queen Elizabeth knows all about etiquette

Talwar and Lee (2002) believed that rather than just desirability another motivating factor in telling lies is learnt social etiquette, from a young age children are taught to conduct themselves according to social rules e.g. not interrupting others while they are speaking or concealing or down playing their own opinions on decisions as well as their opinions of other people to avoid conflict Bussey (1999) found that as early as preschool, children rated telling a lie to protect another’s feelings from being hurt as less negative than telling a lie for personal gain or avoid punishment. Along the same lines Cole, Zahn-Waxler and Smith (1994) found that children as young as four lied to mask disappointment in the presence of their gift giver but expressed disappointment when the gift giver was not present, once again indicating that the main motivation for their lie was to avoid hurting others or to avoid punishment according to their understanding of social etiquette.

White Lies[edit | edit source]

Bok (1978) defined white lies as un truths given without the intention of hurting the target of the lie, unlike other lies told to conceal the truth at the expense of others which are seen as malicious, white lies also aim to do no harm and as such are generally seen as pro-social behavior. Sweetser (1987) argued for this reason that white lies cannot be defined as lies because they are created in accordance with what he saw as the golden rule of social communication, that one must help the listener rather than hurting them. DePaulo and Kashy (1998) suggested however that white lies can often serve both self-focused and other orientated intentions by not only avoiding hurting the target’s feelings but also avoiding a conflict that would reflect negatively on the individual choosing not to lie.

The motivations of different cohorts[edit | edit source]

Lying on the Internet[edit | edit source]

Utz’s (2005) explored four main motivations for individuals to lie to others through the internet; protecting individual privacy, presentation of ideal self, self-enjoyment and malicious intent. One of the leading concerns when giving out personal information on the internet is how the information will be used by other parties and in a previous study Utz (2004) found that people used more identity concealing email addresses when they believed there was a high probability of the information being used to send them spam advertising or being passed onto a third party, Whitty and Garvin (2001) concluded that women often lie to protect themselves from predators or parties that may have malicious intent towards them through the use of ambiguous screen names or identify features that contrast their real life appearance and personal details, this works to avoid being tracked down or the connection being made to their other online profiles.

an ignorent troll with no self control

In much the same way as DePaulo et al. (1996) found that a main motivator to lie in a face to face setting is social desirability Walther (1996) found that individuals on the internet also lie to be seen as desirable and relatable however it is easier to lie on the internet. An example of where individuals often lie to seem more desirable is online dating profiles, Whitty (2003) explored individual’s profiles and found majority of profiles exaggerated the individual’s physical appearance or their socioeconomic status as well as a large number pretending to be younger than they really were. Whitty (2003) and Blargh, McKenna and Fitzimons (2002) both raised the idea that lying about aspects of the self on the internet such as gender, age, occupation and other personal details may act as a form of role play for individuals to explore other identities and roles they may have fantasised or be curious about. Whitty (2003) specifically focused on the formation of romantic relationships on the internet through flirting, describing it as a form of social play which could be motivated by a sense of enjoyment playing alternate selves or an exploration of the core self for others. Donath (1999) suggested that perhaps the last major source of motivation for lying on the internet is reserved for specific individuals that the liar has chosen either because they are an easy target and they seek to cause harm for their own pleasure or have chosen the individual because they hold a personal disagreement with them, the former most likely explain the occurrence of internet trolls who seek to upset or harm specific individuals or entire communities because it brings them pleasure, although another possibility is an overlap with Blargh, McKenna and Fitzimons’ (2002) where the individual seeks to explore the role of antagonist towards others

For infomation on how emotion affects bullying behavior see Janed1987's article on bullying and emotion 

Lying to those close to us[edit | edit source]

Individuals define closeness in personal relationships as one where there is talking disclosing and confiding and a sense of trust that their personal information will not be betrayed to others, they also cite that close relationship allows them to reveal their true feelings with no fear of being judged (Parks & Floyd, 1996). This indicates that in close relationships there would be less motivation to lie to each other, this is supported by Tice Butler, Murven and still well (1995) who’s research showed that the rate of self-enhancing lies was greater when an individual was interacting with a someone new in contrast to someone they had known for a long time. Deci and Ryan (1991) put forward the theory that there are three primary psychological needs, the need for relatedness involved the need to relate and care for others as well as be authentically related to and care for; similar findings were made by Reis and Patrick (1996). This need for relatedness or intimacy suggests that the lower rate of lying is a key predictor in the success of relationships as lying would be a form of inauthentic communication, this idea is supported by Argyle and Henderson (1984) finding that self-reported levels of trust and ability to confide in an individual acted as a predictor of the quality and endurance of close friendships. DePaulo and Kashy (1998) suggest that perhaps it is not that individuals do not lie in their close relationships but rather the type of lie they tell changes, Deci and Ryan’s (1991) work pointed out the need to emotionally support others and be supported and as such one way to support others would be to tell other orientated lies by giving false compliments, pretending to understand and agreeing to avoid hurting others feelings. These lies are focused on the enhancing or protecting of others self rather than enhancing the liar, this could be interpreted as the individual saying that they care more for the feelings of the person’s feelings then they care about telling the truth in the relationship. DePaulo and Kashy (1998) found in their research that partners in close relationships told significantly less lies as low as one in ten interactions however they used a much higher number of other orientated lies. Duck (1994) argued that this may be a form of reassurance of the commitment they share and act as a symbol of their union as they will often pretend to hold the same views on subjects in the presence of their partner.

they look happy dont they

DePaulo and Kashy (1998) found specifically with same-sex couples that those who reported higher levels of satisfaction with their relationship also told a higher number of other orientated lies. (Rusbult, Yovetich And Verette,1996) considered these other orientated lies as part of the process of accommodation, where the individual within the relationship who is the recipient of an antisocial behavior will not act on their negative emotions towards their partner and as such not voice anger or disagreement and instead numb their emotions when communicating or seek to give a constructive response in an attempt to enhance the relationship over time, as such they argue that the act of lying is not other orientated towards their partner but rather aimed at the relationship itself which would suggest some form of selfish motivation. This idea is supported by Reis and Patrick (1996) who noted that it is possible in a relationship to validate one’s partner’s point of view without agreeing with it, they believed that an individual is able to express their own opinion even when it opposes their partner’s while still conveying a sense of caring and validating their argument, they did however concede that there are times where an honest answer would harm all parties involved and it would not be possible to convey compassion without lying in some form. DePaulo and Kashy (1998) also found one other exception to the pattern of lower levels of lying in close relationships, they found that their sample of college students lied in almost every interaction they had with their mother, they hypothesised that this was due to two factors; their mother possessed resources they felt they needed to lie to get, that closeness was not the only predictor to lying but rather the sense of power that the individual felt their target possessed influence them to lie to avoid that power being used against them and the second factor being that individuals continue to feel a high level of concern in regards to what they mother thought of them resulting in higher levels of lying even in adult samples communicating with their mother.

Do children lie the same as adults?[edit | edit source]

Sweetser (1987) pointed out that the way we teach children about honesty is contradictory, on one hand they are taught to always tell the truth no matter the consequences however they are also taught to bend the truth or outright lie when the topic is trivial or the truth could be hurtful to the recipient. Arguably learning to tell other focused lies is essential for children to be seen as polite and responsible, DePaulo and Jordan (1982) believed that telling other focused white lies was learnt in childhood and that this skill transfers to adulthood resulting in the most common type of lie told by adults being white lies to help preserve their relationships with others, to raise others esteem of them or to avoid conflict. A fair amount of research has focused on how children lie to avoid punishment or to intentionally tick others for their own benefit (Peskin, 1992). Popliger, Talwar and Crossman (2011) suggested that the ability to formulate and maintain a lie develops during the preschool years and refines over time however Bussey (1999) found that pre-adolescent children identified all un true statements, even those that would protect another from harm or improve esteem, as negative antisocial lies however they rated other orientated lies as less negative, whereas Lee and Ross (1997) reported that adolescent and post-adolescent samples identified other orientated lies as not being as bad or not being lies when it was to help another or part of doing what was polite. Similar findings showed that towards the end of primary school students began to give positive ratings for other orientated lies and negative ratings only for self-serving lies (Walper and Valtin 1992). These studies would indicate that even from a very young age we are able to identify different types of lies and the underlying motivations behind them, that this moral compass develops over time to appreciate and understand the balance between when it is necessary or acceptable to lie for the sake of others and when it is necessary to tell the truth. Interestingly children as young as three will still tell lies about others appearance or express false gratitude to avoid hurting others even though the research shows that they would judge this behavior as being morally wrong in others (Talwar, Murphy and Lee, 2007)

they look like they are up to no good

Xu et al. (2010) when presented with similar findings suggested perhaps although the behaviours could be seen as other orientated a more likely answer was that given the black and white reasoning of things being good or bad, children rationale that if they do not lie then they will be punished for being rude and so they lie to protect themselves from punishment. The theory that children’s motivation to tell other orientated lies comes from self-focused thoughts is supported by Talwar, Lee, Bala and Lindsay (2004) who put children in a situation where their parent had done something wrong and then asked them if their parent had done it, in the group where they knew if they did lie and say their parent had not been responsible they would instead be blamed they were much less likely to lie to protect their parent in contrast with when they knew they would not be in trouble if they lied and they were much more likely to tell a lie. Popliger et al. (2011) concluded that there seemed to the a connection between parenting style and willingness to lie, majority of children who told other orientated lies had been parented using an authoritative style than those who were willing to tell the blunt truth. Robinson et al. (1995) had similar findings that parents who helped their children to understand social contexts and norms and as such taught children to tell other orientated lies. Popliger et al. (2011) also found that frequency and openness around family member’s emotions also played a role in deciding if children would tell other orientated lies. They found that children coming from families where positive emotions were voiced less often were more likely to be blunt about their disappointment when receiving an undesirable gift. They found that children who had watched their parents tell other orientated lies around disappointment and later voiced their disappointment to their child in private were more likely and proficient at maintaining a other orientated lie, this suggests a form of social modelling where the children are more able to resolve the conflict between the rule to tell the truth and the rule to not be rude when they have seen their parent demonstrate how to use other orientated lies correctly. Popliger et al. (2011) however voiced that there needs to be more research looking specifically at children’s motivation to lie especially in situations where there is high levels of consequences for choosing to lie to protect another.

for more on how age effects motivation see M-J Dallas' article on developmental change

How does personality type and sex affect lying behaviours?[edit | edit source]

Gonza, Vrij and Bull (2001) could not find a connection between personality constructs and rate of lying in everyday life but they did however find that high levels of manipulativeness negatively correlated with low levels of guilt when telling lies which indicated that the individuals would be more likely to feel justified in lying to others which coincides with Eswara and Suyarekha’s (1974) finding that individuals who lied more had lower levels of anxiety towards telling lies. Weaver III (2005) found a strong correlation between levels of neuroticism and using a communication style involving more untruths. Results of DePaulo and Kashy’s (1996) study of every day lying behavior found that individuals with high levels of manipulativeness told a larger number of self-focused lies in comparison to those with lower levels of manipulativeness. McLeod and Genereux (2008) looked at how the personality factors honesty, kindness, assertiveness, approval motivation; self-monitoring and Machiavellianism could influence individual’s acceptability of lying and the subsequent likelihood that they would display types of lying behaviours.

she is dead in side but she will never tell

Their results showed that personality traits can indeed predict the acceptability and subsequent likely hood of individuals lying but different traits effected different types of lie. Lies to increase social acceptance positively correlated with approval motivation and negatively with honesty, self-gain lies positively correlated with Machiavellianism and self-monitoring and negatively with kindness and honesty, altruistic or other orientated lies correlated negatively with assertiveness and honesty. Interestedly they also found that traits that caused polar opposite correlations on the prevalence and acceptance of some lies, such as kindness and Machiavellianism on self-gain lies, produced similar correlations in the same direction on other types of lie such as conflict avoidance lies, McLeod and Genereux (2008) thought this indicated a much more complex interrelationship between traits than they had explored, it was also noteworthy that some types of lies were effected by clusters of personality traits while others only had one or two traits that influenced them, they thought that this could indicate that there is a cluster of traits that can be used to predict an individual’s likelihood to lie but more research is needed to narrow these down and ascertain how they interact in different situations. Camden Motley and Wilson (1984) identified that woman have a greater reliance on white lies to meet their affiliation needs, in their research 50.3% of the lies told to meet affiliation needs were white lies in comparison to 31.5% for men. When they broke down the types of affiliation needs they found that women lied mostly to avoid disclosing personal information or avoid interacting with an individual, suggesting that women are more likely to lie to hide their feelings than men are however they do so to avoid un wanted interactions rather than using white lies to initiate interactions and this may be due to a higher rate of invitations for unwanted interactions such as being asked out on dates or asked for personal information which men do not have. Camden also found that women more often lied to protect the self-esteem of the target of the lie or to avoid being tactless however men were more likely to lie to protect their own self-esteem, they speculated that this could be due to the social roles attached to being a man or a woman which is supported by the data showing that men lied more to raise esteem with women than with other men.

For a fun personality test try this: 

taken from Gailstopp's article on alchohol consuption

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

This chapter aimed to explore why humans lie to each other by reviewing the literature available. Although age, gender, personality traits and circumstance all play some form of role all the literature seems to agree with DePaulo et al. (1996) that all motivation to lie stems from a desire to preserve esteem in some form, either self-esteem or the esteem of others, often the two are intertwined and both the self and the target of the lie are somehow benefitted at least in style of white lies. Malicious lies seem to stem purely from the self but sometimes they are not performed just to cause harm but sometimes to explore aspects of the self as suggested by Utz’s (2005).

Test your knowledge[edit | edit source]

1 the values we teach children about honesty are

unique to australia

2 of Turner et al.'s five categories which was the most common ?

lie to save face
to guide the conversation
to avoid tension or conflict
to gain power over the target of the lie

3 True or False: white lies are only ever other orientated


4 True or False: Women Tell more lies on average than men


References[edit | edit source]

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