Why do people lie?

I’ve been stunned and amazed at the sheer number of President Donald Trump’s lies. Unfortunately for him the New York Times is counting.  It found that in his first 10 months, he told six times as many falsehoods as President Obama.  Trump told 103 separate untruths, many of them repeatedly, said the Times.  Obama told 18 during his  eight year  Presidency. For  some time, I’ve I wanted to better understand why people lie. We all tell the occasional porky. It may be that we’ve been invited to something we don’t want to attend so we say that we have a prior engagement when we actually don’t. Or we may not want to upset a friend when she asks if an outfit suits her and so we say it does when we probably think the opposite.

Leaders usually lie to push through an agenda: ‘…the merger with xyz companies will not cause any job losses’ and then the pink slips start being handed out. Managers lie to keep hold of their workers saying ‘we can’t afford any pay rises this year but I can promise you that next year we will be in a position to increase wages’ and meanwhile the manager gets a raise and a new company car. Politicians promise all manner of things when they are on the campaign trail and once in office develop selective memory.

So do we class these actions as lies or broken promises? Spin doctors are masters of prettying up lies – ‘this is not a demotion it is a way for you to move to a different department and learn new skills’. Yeah right.

A glance at Google shows that there appears to be a lying continuum from our little white lies (I would have loved to come to your party but I’m already booked to go somewhere else) down to lies which could send a person to jail or cause a war.

It seems that we lie because:

  • We want to be polite and/or we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings
  • We don’t want to have to do something so we offer an excuse
  • We want to impress or inflate our importance. This happens on most CV’s where the most common lies are about the power we had and the salary we earned
  • We want to cover up something – like a purchase we couldn’t afford, an affair we had or even a criminal record

Even in all of these scenarios, I’d have to think there would be limits as to how far we would go with the lie. Surely for most of us, our conscience would be activated at some stage and we would either admit to the lie or at the very least stop perpetuating the lie?

So then I researched information on a deeper and more sinister level of lying:

  • When we want to gain power over someone or something
  • When we want to manipulate or cheat someone for personal gain
  • When we chose to blame someone for something we did and then sit back while they take the fall
  • Spreading falsehoods about someone which could affect their jobs, lives or prospects

And finally, I realised that there are the habitual or compulsive liars; people who have made lying their way of life and where they just keep adding bigger lies to the original lie, even in situations where telling the truth would be just as easy.

The problem when someone in a leadership role lies is that what they say can have a profound effect on their followers. For example, in 2015 a study led by Briony Swire-Thompson at the University of Western Australia presented 2000 adult Americans with one of two statements:

  • Vaccines cause autism
  • Donald Trump says that vaccines cause autism

It was discovered that the participants who were Trump supporters showed a stronger belief in the second statement. When these participants were given data from a large scale study which proved that vaccines do NOT cause autism, they were asked to re-evaluate their belief in that statement. Initially they accepted that the statement was false yet when tested again a week later, the Trump supporters had gone back to their original belief, that Donald Trump says that vaccines cause autism so it must be true.

So leaders really do have a duty to check facts and tell the truth because the ultimate problem with lying is that every lie chips away at a reputation or a person’s credibility. I may believe you the first time I find that you’ve lied to me but the next time you make a statement I’m not going to be quite so trusting.  Sticking to the truth is about credibility and reputation. There’s a lovely saying ‘fool me once, your fault; fool me twice my fault.’

So the next time you’re tempted to lie think about why you are doing it and the effects the lie will have on others. And about the lies you will have to tell to cover the original lie.

* I’m the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life. It’s awful. If I’m on my way to the store to buy a magazine, even, and somebody asks me where I’m going, I’m liable to say I’m going to the opera. It’s terrible.

(J.D. Salinger. The Catcher in the Rye)

Ann Andrews CSP. Author Lessons in Leadership: 50 ways to avoid falling into the ‘Trump’ trap






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Ann Andrews

Ann Andrews CSP, is an entrepreneur and futurist who spent more than 30 years as an HR specialist after serving in the military. She is also the author of five business books, co-author of a further eight and one of 50 global futurists whose work will make up a UK book due out later this year: 50/50: The Future Re-invented.