Reasons why people lie and how to confront them

Picture of liar with super-long nose - cartoon - for Reasons why People lie

Today, Conrad looks at the reasons why people lie, how to spot these lies and what to do next.

Let me start with an anecdote to give some of the reasons why people lie – I’ll call it the Ninja Turtle story.

My friend once told me a story about how, when we were kids, a mutual lie ran out of all control. As you have probably gathered at this point I’m based over in the UK. These days we get films at the same time as our US cousins … but things used to be very different.

Such was the case when Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: The Secret of the Ooze came out.

The year was 1991. I remember, back then, how many of my friends were watching this film and it wasn’t even out in cinemas yet. All this thanks to some snide tapes doing the rounds. Despite a slight envy and fascination, however, I was happy to stick to a strict non-piracy code at home.

But I listened rapt to stories about how this new film was shaping up.

Little did I know that all the talk was complete and utter bobbins.

My friend recalled to me one discussion at about this time. He was sat in class talking about Ninja Turtles with his mates. The subject of the sequel inevitably came up. His friend said that he had Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2 on pirate video. He had watched it and it was great.

My friend lied and said he had seen it too.

Then for the next ten minutes they exchanged lies with no bluff being called whatsoever. In fact, it soon became incredibly obvious that neither of them had Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2. Neither of them knew what happened in the movie. But they agreed with each others’ stories of their favorite moments. They continued to corroborate each other’s lies. That went on until the subject eventually changed.

As fun as it was, it was a fascinating insight into lying, and into the reasons why people lie.

Reasons why people lie

Well, as the Ninja Turtles story suggests, we start lying as kids. As kids we see the power of telling tall tales. We understand that this power is quite potent. Dr Gail Saltz says we mean nothing by this. We just realise if we say something a certain way we get a certain thing. We test the environment and eventually tell porkies to get what we want or get out of trouble.

TV celebrity Dr Phil meanwhile says that as this develops we use it to embellish reality, and we also get access to things we wouldn’t normally have.

He warns us of something we all know from our Ninja Turtles story, however – that this can quickly balloon out of control.

Dr Paul Ekman says that beyond squirming out of trouble, protecting people is the next most important of the reasons why people lie. You do it when you don’t want people to get hurt or punished. Privacy and avoiding embarrassment also make his list in an article I thoroughly recommend reading after this one.

Ekman warns that people give their lie away when the stakes are high. It scrambles up our thinking. This is why cops know when we are lying to get out of a ticket, and why tells in card games get worse the more money is on the table.


Spotting a liar

Spotting a liar in terms of their body language is pretty easy. They either use evasive or strong fixed eye contact. They look around, fold their arms. They cover their mouth or their face in order to subconsciously “stop” the lies from getting out.

But when the stakes are not as high, or the liar is well-versed in such trickery, you need to find another way to spot a liar.

An FBI agent in an article with Inc. suggests that we should do some groundwork – build up rapport, which will soften their defenses. Switch up questions to keep potential liars on their feet, listen carefully, and get them to go through what ever made-up tosh they are spreading  backwards. That last point is important: normally it’s easy. But if you are making it up it is not.

Confronting a liar

So we now know the reasons why people lie, and we have a few hints and tips on how to spot them. The next thing is: what the hell do you do about that?

Well, I‘m quite confrontational. I hate liars and want to call them out when it’s something damaging. But that’s apparently not always the best choice. According to Dr Travis Bradberry, calling people out is only one of four options.

Another option he suggests is to do nothing (I can almost feel my head explode by typing that). Maybe the lie is harmless. If that is the case, then just let it go. I’d struggle with that one myself. I’m not quite a cantankerous firebrand, but I think I need an alternative. Good thing he has two others: to laugh it off or play dumb. The first one is a good alternative for me. I feel better about making light of something, rather than just letting something go. You can always get your digs in with a smile, then. The other is quite a soft landing for the liar: pretend you don’t know what they are talking about and get them to answer follow-up questions until they, ultimately, tell the truth. This doesn’t shun them the same way a confrontation does. It gets them to pretend they mis-remembered something and then reframe it in the right light. It’s worth reading Bradberry’s insightful article in full.

From personal experience, I’d say that if you do call someone out, frame it in ways that are not about you. Ask them what they hoped to achieve by saying what they said. This gets them to re-focus their rationale onto the bigger picture, be that as your colleague, friend or family member. Don’t make it personal. As we have seen, the reasons why people lie are varied, but often are more about fear than cruelty or manipulation.