Yesterday I presented at a leadership conference to an audience of 150 people. I asked the question “Who likes being lied to?” Only one hand went up. (I’m still not sure what his story was).
Truth is, we don’t like being lied to. Not by our friends or partners or workmates or clients. We don’t even like it when people on the other side of the world, who we will never meet are caught out in a lie. We take it personally and feel betrayed, bruised, conned and disrespected. We curse and scold politicians, car salespeople, executives, actors, celebrities and sportspeople who choose to twist or hide the truth. How dare they do that to us!
It’s easy to stand back and judge the people we know and the people we don’t for the dreadful lies they tell. Shouldn’t they just tell the truth and be honest from the start?. No, that’s not how people roll.
If I asked you how many lies you told in the past 48 hours you might struggle coming up with one. But if I spent more time exploring your interactions, whether they be face to face, phone, email or text it would be highly likely I would discover that you have told more than one lie in that time.
“Become a truth-attractor before a lie-spotter and you will have less lies to spot”
Studies come up with different numbers when it comes to the question about how many lies we tell in a day. Some research tells us one or two lies a day, some says two or three in a 10 minute conversation!
It’s interesting to think that the behaviour we judge people so harshly for is also the behaviour that most people engage in daily. Many of the lies that are told are quickly minimized, justified or rationalized in our minds and don’t even register as a lie. Or we place them into the ‘white lie’ category and are never considered again. Some lies are much more meaningful and intentional and can do more harm.
Do any of these statements ring a bell?
- “Sorry I didn’t reply, your email went to junk”
- “I was late because the traffic was really bad”
- “No, what you said didn’t bother me”
- “I’ve almost finished the report”
- “Oh, you’re right… I totally agree with you”
- “No… your bum doesn’t look fat in those jeans”
- “I’m fine… no, really… I’m fine…”
I'm most concerned about the lies that are told that can hurt people and can cause people to make life changing decisions that they would not have made had they been armed with the truth. I spend time helping people to identify, decode and navigate Truth Dilemmas® which address situations involving hidden truth in high stake situations.
With every lie comes a motivation. Put simply we lie either to make a gain or avoid a pain. Most of us share the same motives for telling lies. Understanding your own motivations to lie is the first step to doing a 'truth health check' on your own life and own choices. Recognizing how and why people choose the path of hiding or twisting the truth can also help you navigate a situation and boost your chances of encouraging more truth from people when it matters most.
So why do people lie?
Here are 9 reasons people lie that are drawn from research with both adults and children by highly acclaimed expert in this field, Paul Ekman.
1. To avoid being punished. This is the most frequently mentioned motivation for telling lies (by both children and adults). It’s important to note that there were no significant differences for lies told to avoid punishment for a purposeful misdeed versus an honest mistake.
2. To obtain a reward not otherwise readily obtainable. This is the second most commonly mentioned motive, by both children and adults. An example of this is falsely claiming work experience during a job interview to increase chances of hire.
3. To protect another person from being punished. As with lying to avoid personal punishment, motive does not change with intent. We’ve seen this occur between coworkers, friends, family, and even with strangers!
4. To protect oneself from the threat of physical harm. This is different from being punished, for the threat of harm is not for a misdeed. An example would be a child who is home alone telling a stranger at the door that his father is asleep now and to come back later.
5. To win the admiration of others. Telling lies to increase your popularity can range from “little white lies” to enhance a story being told to creating an entirely new (fabricated) persona.
6. To get out of an awkward social situation. Examples of how telling lies can look when motivated by this are claiming to have a babysitter problem to get out of a dull party, or ending a telephone conversation by saying there is someone at the door.
7. To avoid embarrassment. The child who claims the wet seat resulted from water spilling, not from wetting her pants, is an example if the child did not fear punishment, only embarrassment.
8. To maintain privacy without notifying others of that intention. For example, the couple who claims to have eloped because the cost of a wedding was beyond their means when, in reality, they were avoiding the obligation to invite their families.
9. To exercise power over others by controlling the information the target has.Famously embodied by Hitler, this is arguably the most dangerous motive for telling lies.
There are motivations for telling lies that don’t fit squarely into one of the above nine categories, such as truth twisting told out of politeness or tact. However the above nine motivations and reasons can be used as a foundation to help explain why people mostly lie and to help you address and avoid lies in your life when the truth matters most.
Get in touch if you’d like to know more about how you can attract more truth in your life and protect yourself from harmful lies and deception in personal and professional settings. Elly Johnson ellyjohnson.com