Admit it: At some point, you’ve lied. Maybe it was the time you told your aunt that her hand-knit holiday sweater was “exactly what you wanted.” Or when you explained to human resources that you’d missed the big company meeting because your grandmother died … again.
Take heart, though; you’re not Machiavellian. You’re just normal.
During her junior-high years, Zoë Holmes, now 21, would lie to avoid embarrassment at school. Holmes has a congenital heart defect that required her to wear a clunky heartbeat monitor for 24 hours before each cardiologist appointment.
“Lots of people asked about it, but because I was a kid, I didn’t want to stand out for being different,” says the senior at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. “So I would make up the most random things — for example, telling people I was beta-testing a new Nintendo Game Boy.”
“In everyday life, people are often telling lies. Not to get something concrete that they want, like more money, but for psychological reasons,” says Bella DePaulo, a visiting professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara whose research specialties include lying and other forms of deception.
We lie, she says, because we want other people to see us the way we wish we were, to spare others’ feelings or to avoid conflict. According to DePaulo, there are two types of lies:
• Self-centered lies are used to make you look better, or to avoid embarrassment or conflict (“I can’t get lunch with you because I have to run an errand”).
• Other-centered lies are used to spare someone else’s feelings (“You totally do not look fat in that dress”).
Some lies are more devious than others.
“My favorite story to get out of a traffic ticket,” says Erik Desatnik, a 28-year-old real-estate developer in Austin, Texas, “is explaining to the officer that I was speeding up to pass a reckless driver that appeared to be intoxicated. I then say, ‘I hope he gets home safely,’ and the officer is usually pleased and lets me go.” (That one has worked twice in two states.)
We all do it
Lying is not exactly extraordinary. In 2004, DePaulo asked college students at the University of Santa Barbara and members of the surrounding community to record every lie they told in one week. The results, published in “The Social Psychology of Good and Evil,” showed that college students lied at least once to 38 percent of the people they interacted with. Community members lied to 30 percent.
DePaulo also found that some types of people are more likely to lie:
• Manipulative people will lie to get what they want.
• People-pleasers tend to say what the other person wants to hear.
• Extroverts “are more tuned into others, so they notice what other people want to hear, or they want to impress them,” DePaulo says.
Most white lies (for instance, a person trying to present himself as more knowledgeable) are told to strangers.
Serious lies, she found, overwhelmingly are told to or by people close to the teller (such as a parent lying to her child about how sick a grandparent is), most often to protect that relationship.
“In the abstract, it’s very easy to say, ‘Oh, we value honesty, and you should never lie,’” says DePaulo. But “sometimes in our real lives, our valuing of honesty clashes with something else we also value, like wanting to be gracious or kind or compassionate.”
In these ways, it’s unrealistic to be a completely Honest Abe.
Juggling too much on his romantic plate six years ago, Jared Cohen, now a 24-year-old project manager in New York City, once canceled a date so he could go out with a more attractive suitor. While out with the second man, Cohen bumped into his original date, who quickly figured out he’d been ditched for someone else.
I saw myself as a cross between Carrie Bradshaw and Colin Farrell — hopelessly romantic, but willing to (be with whomever) came my way,” Cohen explains.
Cohen’s jilted original suitor ignored his later attempts at reconciliation, and Guy No. 2 eventually stopped calling.
DePaulo says we do tend to get caught.
“I think that ‘fessing up early on, even though it’s difficult and so tempting not to do it, is probably your best bet in the long run,” she says. “Ethically, of course, it’s what you should do. But even apart from that, you’re gonna get busted.”