Why Do People Lie?
Issue 66: July 28, 2022
Last week we discussed inferences that can be made based on what we do versus what we say— all revealed by data from our physical and digital footprints. We offered several observations about how what we say often reflects what we think others want to hear from us or how others expect us to respond. Several months ago, we focused on how individuals and organizations earn trust. This week, we turn our attention to asking why people lie.
We would argue that all of us lie – the issue is to what degree. Why do we lie? The reasons are as complex as the situations that trigger the behavior. Let’s review just a few reasons why we lie:
- To protect others.
- To manipulate others
- To not disappoint others.
- To present a better image of ourselves.
- To please others.
- To hide a weakness or failure.
- To avoid judgment.
- To hide the truth.
- To get votes.
- To outright deceive.
- Because we think what we are saying is the truth.
The public discourse is fraught with lies that we have gently rebranded as fake news and alt-facts. Election results, the number of human Twitter followers, climate change, product safety, sales results, online book reviews, audience size and composition, Constitutional rights, market performance, the promise of a startup business, national sovereignty, reported facts … just to name a few recent headlines. A lie by any label compromises trust and defines one’s ethics. So, why do so many people lie and think they can get away with it? Put another way, not telling the truth has consequences; some may be fatal.
Patterns of Lying
First the facts: A lie is a false statement with deliberate intent to deceive, in other words, an intentional untruth, according to Merriam Webster. If you have been following our newsletters, you might key into the fact that a deliberate lie might actually be resulting from the subconscious – or even unconscious. Our default behaviors can be deceptive – even to us. What we may truly believe to be true may be informed from some deeply held belief in our subconscious reinforced by years of default behavior. When we are caught in some lies, we blithely explain them as “innocent” or “little white lies.” As an example, the popular HBO series “Pretty Little Lies” is built on deception.
One could argue that lies have become ingrained into our culture. Even celebrated by public personalities and politicians even when historical proof (texts, videos, audio recordings, etc.) reveal what they previously said was a lie gets explained away as if that reality simply never existed. As a society, where do we draw the ethical line? Where do those in our organizational systems draw the ethical line? And the most important question to consider is, “Do we really want to draw a line based on ethics or are we too far down the rabbit hole to care?”
When Lying Sells
Ponder that last question for a few moments. Let’s consider a practical consequence.
Fake online product reviews cost shoppers 12 cents for every dollar they spend, and increase the likelihood they buy inferior products, Axios Markets’ Emily Peck writes from a paper to be presented at the NBER Summer Institute. Why it matters: We intuitively know fake reviews are bad. But the paper offers a deeper picture of how phony write-ups and inflated star ratings change shopping behavior.
Here’s how it works: The researchers recruited 10,000 online participants in the U.K. to shop on an Amazon-like platform they’d created. All the items were real and rated for quality by a nonprofit consumer advocacy group that sponsored the study. Researchers showed some participants fake reviews or inflated star ratings — or both. Others didn’t get any phony reviews. A few participants received guidance on how to spot a phony review. Those who saw fake written reviews were 7 points more likely to buy faulty products. Inflated star ratings also decreased the likelihood that a shopper would buy a superior product, as reported by Axios.
Compulsive lying is considered by many to be a very different matter with potentially more consequences than those little white lies so many of us tell throughout the day. Researchers have worked to explain why some people tell lies with no clear purpose, especially when the lies are easy to disprove, according to the American Consulting Organization (ACO). One insidious reason is that compulsive liars do not see their lies as lies. They are situational and liars often say what they want to believe and conform to their idea of actual truth. Remember, our individual realities are just perceptions that result from the interpretation of, or correlation to our beliefs, values, and experiences. So, do we really lie—or do we simply represent what we believe to be our truth?
Related to that, according to the ACO, “People who lie repeatedly often have a desire to be in control. When the truth of a situation doesn’t agree with such control, they produce a lie that does conform to the narrative they desire. Such people may worry they won’t be respected if the truth can leave them looking poorly. Instead, they offer a lie that casts them in a good light even when what they offer has no basis in reality.”
We live in a time when controlling the narrative seems paramount to effect change, transformation or even pivots. This is reinforced when CEOs and organizational leaders are challenged by their own workforces to be empathetic and take public stands on issues. Do leaders feel it’s a necessity to lie so that they continue to maintain a semblance of workforce control by controlling the narrative?
Yet, controlling a narrative that isn’t based on truth can kill an organizational culture particularly when leaders repeatedly cast a false reality. And what’s even worse is when these leaders don’t even realize they are lying; they have come to believe in their alternate reality. But there is a major consequence to this behavior. Memory is fallible, and it is nearly impossible for a liar to keep all their falsehoods straight. Eventually they will make a mistake with inconsistent “truths” and will be called out.
Lying in the Workplace
Psychologist Dr. Paul Ekman has identified six core reasons for lying, which we have adapted to describe the toxicity they create in an organizational culture.
- To obtain a reward not otherwise readily obtainable. Misreporting sales results may yield short-term gain, but eventually the data wins out and convoluted sales reports are uncovered and dealt with, including bonus clawbacks.
- To protect another person from being punished. Although the liar might argue this is a noble gesture, it can have insidious consequences. Think: a sexual harassment accusation.
- To win the admiration of others. How many times have you been in a business situation when an individual brags or overstates his or her experience, education, honors, and achievements?
- To get out of an awkward situation. Lies aren’t always verbal. Say you are in a meeting, and you see the conversation becoming contentious. Creating a distraction (overturning a glass of water, dropping a mass of papers, etc.) is a lie of sorts to avoid personal confrontation.
- To avoid embarrassment. How about a team that made a terrible mess of a project, but is unwilling to take responsibility of the results and blames someone else for the results?
- To exercise control over others by controlling the narrative. Even in the board room or the executive suite, those who control the story have the upper hand, eclipsing the voices of anyone who doesn’t agree with that version of the truth.
How do you know when you’re being lied to? Dr. Ekman differentiates between what the liar wants to show and what the liar wants to conceal. He says, “Often, these hidden emotions leak in the form of a micro-expression, a brief (half a second or less) involuntary facial expression revealing true emotion.” He cautions that “a single micro-expression does not offer conclusive proof of lying, but micro expressions are one of the most effective nonverbal behaviors to monitor to indicate a person is being dishonest.”
By nature, we want to trust and believe what we are being told is true to maintain our own emotional equilibrium, so, we don’t often focus closely to pick up on nonverbal micro-expressions. For example, is an individual looking down or away from your eyes as they speak? Are they fidgeting? There are subtle signs to watch for.
David Shulman, professor of sociology at Lafayette College puts more blame on the workplace and culture than the individual, as reported by Fast Company. He explains that “when people’s options are limited, they often feel they have to lie in order to get what they want. Lying is a tool people can use when they don’t have the power otherwise to fix a situation to their liking. People lie because lies can work, when abiding by normal rules or etiquette fall short in getting a person what they want. That could be why more-dissatisfied people lie.”
Paradoxically, Shulman adds that “maybe some of the most successful people are those who have lied their way into success. “In other words, “you’ve got the disgruntled people who lie frequently, but that doesn’t mean the people who are happy generally are more honest.”
Clinical psychologist Dr. David Levy believes that people are generally honest. He says, “Our very capacity for language is built on an assumption of honesty — we agree that the words we use mean the same thing consistently, and we don’t use words deceptively because this would render language and the very communication of ideas impossible.” When our common language is at risk, our notion of truth and reality are at risk and organizationally, the system completely breaks down.
Dr. Levy explores the motivation for lying and identifies six explanations for falsehoods and deception.
- “The lie does matter … to them.The number-one reason people lie when it just doesn’t matter is because they actually do think it matters. While everyone around them thinks it’s an inconsequential issue, the liar believes it is critically important.”
- “Telling the truth feels like giving up control. Often, people tell lies because they are trying to control a situation and exert influence toward getting the decisions or reactions they want.”
- “They don’t want to disappoint you. It may not feel like it to you, but people who tell lie after lie are often worried about losing the respect of those around them. They want you to like them, be impressed, and value them. And they’re worried that the truth might lead you to reject or shame”
- “It’s not a lie to them. Multiple studies demonstrate that our memories are influenced by many things, that they change over time, and that they are essentially reconstructed each time we think about them. Often, repetitive liars feel so much pressure in the moment that their memory becomes simply unreliable. When they say something, it’s often because they genuinely believe, at that moment, that it is the truth. Sometimes, this can become so severe that the person almost seems to have created a completely alternate world in their head, one that conforms to their moment-by-moment beliefs and needs.”
- “They want it to be true. The liar might want their lie to be true so badly that their desire and needs again overwhelm their instinct to tell the truth. Liars hope that they can make something come true by saying it over and over, and by believing it as hard as they can.”
A SimplyHired study found that the frequency and type of lies one tells at work might be a function of their age, gender, their position in the company, or even the day of the week. For example, “Men lie more than women, particularly when it comes to improving their chances of receiving a raise or avoiding being reprimanded for a mistake. Women were instead more likely to lie to avoid hurting a coworker’s feelings or to attend a job interview without notifying their current employer.”
Dr. Arthur Schwartz. President of Character.org summarizes findings from recent studies about lying in the workplace:
- “I’m not feeling well” is the most common lie.
- 78% lie during the hiring process.
- Younger employees lie more than older employees, suggesting the older you are the less likely you are to lie in order to skip work.
- More lies occur on Monday and Friday, suggesting people trying to extend their weekend by a day or two.
- Employees who are not satisfied with their job lie more.
- Those in more senior positions also admitted to lying more frequently, with 37% of managers lying more than weekly, compared with 30% of associates and 28% of entry-level workers.
- The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners estimates that companies worldwide lose 5% of revenues to fraud ($3.5 trillion).
Christian Hart, professor of Psychology and Director of the Psychological Science program at Texas Woman’s University, writes on the nature of deception. He suggests steps that leaders can take to reduce lying in the workplace, citing the Harvard Business Review, “employees rank “high ethical and moral standards” as the most important characteristic of effective leaders.” According to Dr. Hart:
- Prioritize honesty and ethical behavior
“Establish honesty as one of your core values and then find creative ways to keep explaining and reaffirming honesty so it becomes part of your team or company culture. Far too many workplace leaders personally value honesty but they don’t explicitly communicate and reinforce the expectation that all team members need to be honest.”
- Walk your talk
“Don’t fall into the ‘do as I say, not as I do’ trap. The most effective leaders consistently model honesty. Your team needs to see you as being trustworthy. Being transparent is also critical to establishing a culture of honesty.”
- Recalibrate your performance management system
“Employees will start lying if they perceive your performance review process does not fully capture their contributions. When accountability processes are seen as unfair, people feel forced to embellish their accomplishments and hide, or make excuses for their shortfalls. That sets the stage for dishonest behavior.’”
- Develop a Dashboard of “Honesty Reminders”
“Sreedhari Desai, a professor of organizational behavior at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, has conducted research that shows visible “ethical reminders” and company-wide symbols and rituals can help employees be more honest with each other and their customers.”
- Create “Ethics Simulations”
“One idea is for your team or company to create a series of “ethics simulations.” Twice a year put your team through ethical scenarios (pertinent to their everyday workplace challenges) that will require them to internalize and normalize the cognitive, emotional, and behavioral ‘scripts’ that will need to be honest in stressful situations. Each one of us needs practice being honest in situations where it may be easier to lie.”
The Truth Is Out There
We counsel our clients to understand “why” employees or managers choose to lie. Deceptive behavior is often the result of stress and pressure on individuals, teams, departments or even a whole organization. We have found that when individuals are in over their heads, they often find a path out by lying to make them look more successful than they are, masking their incompetence.
We have observed that lies may be more acceptable than the truth when trying to manage the complex politics of working with others. Organizations often turn a blind eye to deceptive human behavior and accept it as part of its organizational and people dynamics. But this is not acceptable, and organizations need a better moral compass that supports the ethics that promote a healthy organizational system—and society.
We advise how to uncover the pattern and behavior of lies by asking, “why.” However, asking “why” takes the energy and time we often don’t believe we have. Lies, particularly compulsive lying, is an easier way out of confrontation. The risk is that supporting patterns of deception over time will result in a complex spider’s web or alternative universe that can unravel. Eventually the truth will reveal itself.
A healthy organization operates with a sense of mindfulness and awareness of the culture it creates through leadership modeling, sales and performance goals and the level of internal competition it fosters. Compassion, empathy and transparency are effective strategies to nurture an organizational environment that thrives on honesty and truthfulness.
Get “The Truth about Transformation”
The 2040 construct to change and transformation. What’s the biggest reason organizations fail? They don’t honor, respect, and acknowledge the human factor. We have compiled a playbook for organizations of all sizes to consider all the elements that comprise change and we have included some provocative case studies that illustrate how transformation can quickly derail.