Psychology of Lying

Deception is not anything out of the ordinary nor is it against societal norms. Mark Twain said, “Everybody lies…every day, every hour, awake, asleep, in his dreams, in his joy, in his mourning. If he keeps his tongue still his hands, his feet, his eyes, his attitude will convey deception” (1). Deception is part of the life we live. It is how we make others feel better, get away with things as well as make ourselves seem more appealing to others. Our society lives on lies. If everyone told the truth, how different would our world be?

It is not only humans that are capable of deception. There is a flower called the mirror orchid that has a distinct blue color that mimics the look of a female wasp (1). This orchid also omits chemicals that simulate the female wasp pheromones. In using these deceptive measures male wasps are attracted to the orchid and stay on the flower long enough to get enough pollen off of the flower. This helps the orchid population maintain itself and pass on its genes to the next generation. The orchid has obtained this method of deception through natural selection because the flowers that were able to deceive the male wasps were able to pass on their genes.

Not only are plants capable of deception, but other animals can too. Livingstone discusses how a hog nosed snake when threatened by predators spreads out its cobra like hood and hisses while keeping its mouth shut (1). It makes the predators think it is dangerous when it really isn't. Many other animals do this as an evolutionary advantage. They mimic the appearance of another more dangerous animals so that they are not eaten by predators and therefore can pass on their genes to the next generation. Livingstone also tells a story of deception by Chacma baboons which were observed in a study from 1987 performed by primatologists Richard W. Byrne and Andrew Whiten of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. The two scientists observed many of these deceptive behaviors, especially in social contexts. Their work led to their creation of The Machiavellian Intelligence Hypothesis. This hypothesis says increased social complexity led to increased intelligence and ability of deception in primates. The more complex our society gets, the more intelligent and deceptive we have to be in order to get ahead of everyone else. In other words, humans are natural liars.

Even though our morals say lying and deception is bad, those who lie still get ahead in life. It is those who are better at deception that get farther ahead than those who are not (1). Livingstone says there is a correlation between social popularity and deception skills. Those who are more deceptive can make themselves look better than others and attract more people who believe the lies. In order to deceive others though, we must be able to deceive ourselves so that we believe the lie as well. But what part of our brain makes the decision to to lie, and are we conscious of it? Livingstone suggests that cognition is separate from consciousness, and consciousness is a lesser part of cognition than previously thought. He presents a study by neuroscientist Benjamin Libet. Libet studied the motor cortex and the electrical tension that occurs when the brain is ready to initiate an action. He found that our unconscious begins to initiate an action just over a third of a second before we actually decide to act. This tells us that it is our unconscious makes the decision and our conscious mind takes credit for it. Livingstone connects this to deception in saying, “ We are able to deceive ourselves by invoking the equivalent of a cognitive filter between unconscious cognition and conscious awareness. The filter preempts information before it reaches consciousness, preventing selected thoughts from proliferating along the neural pathways to awareness” (1).

But are all lies a bad thing? They are so much a part of society that most people don't think twice about lying. David Nyberg a visiting scholar at Bawdoin College said, “We humans are active, creative mammals who can represent what exists as if it did not, and what doesn't exist as if it did. Concealment, obliqueness, silence, outright lying– all help to hold Nemesis at bay; all help us to abide too-large helpings of reality” (2). When a young child learns they can lie, there is a shift in the idea of power, and who holds that power. Robin Marantz Henig wrote in her article “Looking for the Lie” that learning to lie is part of growing up. It is the development of theory of mind that allows us to learn to lie. This theory of mind is the concept of understanding what goes on in our head is different from what goes on in other people's heads.

In his article “The Creativity of Lying,” Jeffrey Walzyck reveals how lying can function as a way of solving social problems. The intention of a lie could be either benevolent or malevolent, but is often an intellectual method of adapting to a situation. People view lying in different ways. A painting of a fictional landscape, or a fantasy novel could be considered a lie, for instance, because it is a creative fabrication. The intent behind this “lying” however is benevolent; that is, products such as the painting or novel are meant to bring understanding and happiness to others.

Walzyck describes the processes of maintaining a lie as “Producing multiple or alternative answers from available information…making unexpected combinations, recognizing links among remote associates, [and] transforming information into unexpected forms” (3). Deception, therefore, involves keeping track of a story, and involves similar psychological processes that are also apparent in improvisation. It is not just a linear process; more connections are involved. One must consider how the beginning and end of the lie relate, respond effectively to questions, and be aware of the lie's impact, observing how others respond to it.


  1. Livingstone-Smith, D. (2005). Natural-Born Liars. Scientific American Mind, 16(2), 16-23. Retrieved April 28, 2013, from
  2. Marantz Henig, R. (2006, February 5). Looking for the Lie. New York Times, 155(5348), 46-83. Retrieved April 29, 2013
  3. Walczyk, J., Runco, M., Tripp, S., & Smith, C. (2008). The creativity of lying: Divergent thinking and ideational correlates of the resolution in social dilemmas. Creativity Research Journal, 20(3), 328-42. Retrieved May 9, 2013, from