Why Do People Lie? There Are Apparently 6 Main Reasons, According To Science
Everybody lies. Whether you've told a harmless white lie in order to get out of plans that you were just too exhausted to show up to or you've constructed a more elaborate fib that probably wasn't the best idea in hindsight, lying is a part of human nature. But lying isn't, by any means, simple: According to Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Virginia, women are more likely than men to stretch the truth in the name of protecting the feelings of someone they're close to. "You save your really big lies," she told Psychology Today, "for the person that you're closest to."
Lying for love? You bet. Clearly, the truth about lying is that it's complicated.
To provide some helpful clarity behind humans' innate desire to stretch the truth, a new study published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences has identified and tested out a new typology of lies. According to this newly introduced system, there are exactly six main reasons people lie—and apparently certain types of lies tend to be used by certain types of people. Yes, you might just be able to tell someone's most common type of lie based on their personality.
The typology, created by scientists from the University of Social Sciences and Humanities at the Sopot Faculty of Psychology in Poland, categorizes lies based on the beneficiary and motivation of the lie. The researchers identified three possible beneficiary options: lies that benefit the self, lies that benefit others, and lies that benefit both the self and others. As for motivations, they broadly classified all lies as serving the purpose of achieving gains ("beneficial lies") or avoiding losses ("protective lies"). Thus, the six main types of lies are:
- Self-oriented beneficial lies: These kinds of lies are characterized by fibbing in order to achieve a positive outcome for yourself (i.e., finding a sum of money and claiming that it's your own).
- Self-oriented protective lies: These lies, on the other hand, are mainly told to avoid a negative outcome for yourself (i.e., telling your friend that it wasn't you who broke their valuable vase).
- Other-oriented beneficial lies: If you tell this kind of lie, you're aiming to secure a positive outcome for someone else (i.e., telling a child that her drawing is the most beautiful thing you've ever seen).
- Other-oriented protective lies: Alternatively, other-oriented protective lies are told in order to prevent hurt befalling someone else (i.e., telling your friend that she'll definitely find her lost wallet).
- Pareto beneficial lies: These kinds of lies are typically told to benefit both yourself and someone else (i.e., falsely claiming a prize for your team in a group project).
- Pareto protective lies: Finally, pareto protective lies are told to prevent hurt feelings toward both yourself and someone else (i.e., falsely claiming that you and your friend weren't the ones who put together the holiday party that ultimately sucked).
To test out the effectiveness of the model, the researchers recruited 83 participants to record their social interactions each day (including instances of lying and the reason behind these instances) with a pocket-size diary for the duration of a week. After the week came to a close, the participants also completed various personality tests. Researchers were specifically curious about six specific character traits: Machiavellianism, self-control, concern for social desirability, empathy, self-esteem, and anxiety.
After analyzing the pocket journals, the researchers discovered that the participants had lied a total of 401 times throughout the week collectively. The majority of the lies were definitely for selfish purposes: 41 percent were self-oriented protective lies, and 19 percent of them were self-oriented beneficial lies. The other reasons appeared far less frequently: 15 percent were other-oriented protective lies, 7 percent were pareto protective lies, 3 percent were other-oriented beneficial lies, and just 2% were pareto beneficial lies. The researchers also found 12 percent of the instances were uncategorized, other types of lies, but the majority of fibs fell under each sector of the typology the researchers had developed.
Perhaps most interestingly, the findings also showed that specific types of lies were used more often by people holding certain personality traits.
Here's how each of these traits correlated with various lying behaviors:
The biggest liars are big Machiavellians.
Machiavellianism generally refers to people who are manipulative, particularly those who use a variety of socially offensive or unethical tactics in order to achieve higher status or power. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, researchers found that the more Machiavellian you are, the more you will lie overall—and more specifically, the more you will use self-oriented beneficial lies.
"In the case of self-oriented beneficial lies, the manipulative function of lying is particularly prominent, as these lies facilitate the acquisition of new short-term gains," the authors write. "People who are more manipulative are arguably more inclined to use a situation that allows them to achieve certain aims, even if they are of a short-term nature."
These Machiavellian-type people in general used beneficial lies more often than others did. And strangely, the more Machiavellian you were, the less likely you were to lie for protective reasons, no matter the beneficiary.
If you consider yourself to be someone with great amounts of self-control, that's probably because you can, more often than not, restrain from responding to situations on impulse. So, wouldn't you use this self-restraint to avoid lying? The researchers found this was indeed true: People with more self-control tended to lie fewer times per social interaction. When they were stretching the truth, these folks had a slight skew toward telling self-oriented beneficial lies.
Concern for social desirability
The more a person cared about being seen as socially desirable, the fewer self-oriented lies they told. Why? Being "socially desirable" refers to the way you're perceived and seen by others. Will others approve of you and your actions? If you're lying for the benefit of yourself and people find out, you could put your reputation and "desirability" at risk, the researchers explained. Interestingly, in general, people who crave social desirability didn't lie enough at all to reach statistical significance, according to the research.
If you're an empathetic person, you understand other people's views, emotions, and needs as if they were your own. So scientists predicted that people with more empathy would lie in order to "bring benefits to another person or protect them from harm." The participants' test results confirmed this prediction, showing that when the lie being told by an empathetic person involved the interests of others, the cost of veering from the truth would be eagerly accepted. Thus, the more empathetic a person was, the more often they used other-oriented lies and pareto lies. In fact, other-oriented protective lies in general were correlated with empathy, meaning the two are closely related.
We're constantly being told that having good self-esteem is essential to recognizing self-worth, but did you know that having low self-esteem prompts you to lie more often? That's because, according to the researchers, people with low self-esteem are prompted to lie in order to compensate for their lack of self-assurance, "to enable creation of a more impressive identity," they wrote.
Basically, if you have high self-esteem, you wouldn't be as inclined to lie. So according to the findings, those with lower confidence tend to use self-oriented beneficial lies more frequently.
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting 40 million adults in the U.S. alone, and the study authors noted that this mental health issue is related to feelings of discomfort, nervousness, and fear. So it somewhat follows that anxious people would tend to lie in order to soothe some of the discomfort they were experiencing or, since anxiety correlates with self-esteem, to receive a boost in confidence from adding personal value to themselves by stretching the truth.
Anxiety-prone people were often found telling beneficial lies (namely self-oriented beneficial lies), along with self-oriented protective lies. This, according to the scientists, would indeed serve short-term goals of relieving anxiety and increasing self-image. (But importantly, they note, this kind of lying wouldn't likely result in long-term benefits. Worth remembering!)
Not everyone's lying for malicious reasons, clearly.
While lying certainly isn't a good idea in many cases, there's no denying that harmless lies told by empathetic people about a child's "gorgeous" drawing or an other-oriented protective lie told in order to soothe your best friend when she's freaking about leaving her wallet in an Uber aren't valuable in some sense. Moreover, this study proves that there may be some relationships between different types of people and types of lies.
None of this is meant to condone telling anything but the truth. But the next time you catch yourself or someone else in a fib, consider the reason behind it. What's their motivation? Who are they lying for—the self or someone else?
So, what personality type do you most closely identify with? Why do you lie?
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Georgina Berbari is a multidisciplinary artist focusing on photography and writing. Through these mediums, she creates works exploring the human body, sexuality, nature and psychology. Her work has been featured in the Hecksher Museum of Art on Long Island, ZEUM Magazine, Women’s Health, Bustle, SHAPE, BuzzFeed, and elsewhere. She is a Master's graduate of the creative writing program at Columbia University and a Yoga Alliance RYT-200 yoga and meditation instructor.