Lie detector test (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some lies are big, some lies are small, but the one thing we have in common as humans is that we all lie.

There is a lot of mystery and discussion about the real reasons that we are tempted to lie. Research (and common sense) shows that a person’s initial instinct is to serve his or her own self-interest. If we feel that there is a justifiable reason for the lie, then we are more likely to actually follow through and lie to the person.

Psychological scientists Shaul Shalvi and his colleagues hypothesized that if a person is under time pressure and the decision to lie could possibly yield a financial reward; they are more likely to lie. These scientists also did additional studies other factors that play a part in our decision to lie.

The main reason that we lie is because we do not want something to happen or we are afraid of something. Lying is done to avoid consequences and conflict as well as to protect ourselves from harm, punishment, rejection, or loss.

Humans lie to get what they want, but we also lie to protect those around us. If we think that the ‘truth’ will hurt someone, then we are more likely to lie to that person to keep them feeling happy and positive. Given our evolution as social creatures, our human instinct is to get along with other people in our community.

In order to maintain order and harmony, its generally not in our nature to hurt somebody’s feelings and make them feel bad, especially if they are a loved one or family member. So we lie - often without even realizing it - in order to protect other people’s feelings. Of course, lying is just as often used in order to artificially better one’s social standing - such as lying about past accomplishments or experiences.

The White Lie

Most lies are short and simple and considered to be harmless. This is called a ‘white lie.’ White lies are minor lies that we aren’t afraid to use because the lie generally doesn’t hold any major consequences. White lies may have an evolutionary basis, since they are often used to maintain a social balance and preserve relationships. In fact, many social norms dictate that we use white lies and minor deception - feigning interest at a dinner party for example.

A common version of the white lie is for someone to tell the truth for the most part, but conceal something or lie about something to avoid awkward situations. A white lie in this form is often used to shield a person from an emotionally damaging truth.

Here are some common white lies that you might have used before:

  • Nodding your head or agreeing with someone when you have no idea what they said. This is considered a small white lie because you are making the person who was talking believe you were listening to them when you actually didn’t hear a word they said.
  • I’m sorry I can’t make it, I have plans. If the real reason is lack of interest, you’ll never hear it.
  • No, officer, I have no idea how fast I was going. Although ignorance never seems to work in these situations, you should never admit guilt!
  • No honey, you don’t look fat in that dress.

Lying to Co-workers and for Work Related Reasons

Jennifer Argo of the University of Alberta co-authored a study that eventually showed how people are more comfortable with lying to their coworkers than they are with a stranger. Her research focused on the basic idea that we act in our own self-interest before anything else, and that we want to protect and enhance our self-worth as often as we can.

Experiments were done on subjects having conversations with their coworkers about how much they paid for a similar new car. The main subject was supposed to tell their coworker that they paid more for the exact same car. The study showed that the subjects were ready to lie when the price difference was small and when they were talking to a coworker instead of a stranger.


Another common reason we lie is because we want to get out of a day at school or a day at work. Taking a sick day when you aren’t actually contagious and ill is a white lie that can help you catch up on the sleep you missed or the project that you slacked off on.

If you don’t sound sick or you don’t want that to be your excuse, then another common white lie is the flat tire. This works best if you were on your way back from a vacation or you just took an all day trip out somewhere because you can lie about getting the flat way out in the middle of nowhere. A lie like this is considered a white lie because no one ends up emotionally distraught or hurt because of it. It is simply protecting someone and allowing them to take the day off of work or school.

Did You Catch That Lie?

When we first meet somebody and have a conversation with them, we tend to share facts and tidbits of information about one another’s lives and personal situation. Research shows that when we are initially conversing with a stranger, the chances that we say something that is not completely accurate (but not necessarily an outright fabrication) are very high.

The lies that we come up with in a situation like this are generally not ones that are meant to harm or misinform the other person. Our mind simply manifests these lies because we are trying to maintain our self – worth and back up the vision that’s in our mind about how we should be as a person.