The Truth About Lying
From big whoppers to little white lies, almost everyone fibs on occasion. Here, experts reveal why.
Nearly any adult will tell you that lying is wrong. But when it comes to avoiding trouble, saving face in front of the boss,
or sparing someone’s feelings, many people find themselves doing it anyway. In fact, more than 80 percent of women admit to
occasionally telling what they consider harmless half-truths, says Susan Shapiro Barash, author of Little White Lies, Deep Dark Secrets: The Truth About Why Women Lie (St. Martin’s Press, $15, amazon.com). And 75 percent admit to lying to loved ones about money in particular. The tendency to tell tales is “a very natural human
trait,” explains David L. Smith, Ph.D., associate professor of philosophy at the University of New England, in Biddeford,
Maine. “It lets you manipulate the way you want to be seen by others.” To pinpoint how people stretch the truth from time
to time and the potential fallout from it, learn the six most common ways that people mislead.
Most lies aren’t meant to be hurtful to others; rather, they’re meant to help the one doing the fibbing. These are the six
top ways people lie.
1. Lying to Save Face
What it sounds like: “Gosh, I never got the shower invitation!” “Sorry I’m late, but there was a huge pileup on the freeway.”
Why people do it: For self-preservation. While it may be instinctual, people who frequently cover up innocent errors may start to feel as if they have permission to be irresponsible. What’s more, it can become grueling for them to keep track of those deceptions. (“Now, why did I tell her I couldn’t cochair that event?”) Eventually those lies hinder people from having close connections, says Smith. “Of course, there are relationships in which it doesn’t matter as much,” he says.
How you can avoid it:
- Think long-term. When you’re tempted to be less than truthful, consider your ultimate goal: to have a happy marriage, say, or a solid friendship. Then, when torn between fact and fiction, ask yourself, “Which will put me closer to my goal?” Usually the choice is clear.
- Keep it simple. Most of the time, a short apology is all that’s needed, and you can omit some details without sacrificing the truth. Something like “Sorry that I didn’t call you back sooner” is usually sufficient and effective.
2. Lying to Shift Blame
What it sounds like: “It’s my boss’s decision, not mine.” “My husband never told me you called.”
Why people do it: “To effectively give away power and control,” says Smith. “When done habitually, this can diminish a person’s ability to deal with life’s bigger problems.” When someone constantly saddles other people with his responsibilities, others can grow resentful of carrying this burden. Also, eternally passing the buck is downright exhausting. The deceiver keeps fielding requests but is only postponing the inevitable. Eventually the issue will have to be dealt with.
How you can avoid it:
- Dig deep. In some cases, blame shifting can signal difficulty with accepting responsibility for your actions, says Joseph S. Weiner, chief of consultation psychiatry at North Shore University Hospital, in Manhasset, New York. Maybe you were criticized for making mistakes as a child, for example, and so now you’re afraid to own up because of what other people may think of you. Once you realize this is a behavior that can be changed, however, you can start to regain the power you may feel you don’t have.
- Flip it around. Before using a colleague or a loved one as a decoy in a minor deception, think of how the other person would feel in the same scenario. If the deception puts other people in an unfavorable light, it’s best to leave them out of it.