When someone says something that isn’t true, it’s a lie—except when it isn’t!For writers, any untruth can be a tool for building character, plot, tone, etc. I can think of three situations when an untruth isn’t a lie.
1) The person telling the untruth is incapable of discerning what the truth is. Very young children will often lie because there is no real difference between fantasy and reality in their mind. The cardboard box really did become a rocket ship. A mermaid and a kracken really did come to play in the bathtub.
Depending on the age of the child, this may extend to what seems to adults to be attempts to get out of trouble or deflect blame. Because a child’s sense of reality is not concrete, what an adult sees as a lie a child may simply see as very effective wishful thinking.
Children may also respond with the first answer to come into their mind that they think an adult wants to hear. This is true both for extremely young children who simply try to give an answer they think the adult wants to hear and for children who have trouble concentrating or remembering, such as those with ADD or ADHD.
Dr. Kang Lee, a psychologist at the University of Toronto, sees lying as an indicator of developmental status. I’ll skip the research methodology and simply cite the findings. When asked whether they had peeked behind a screen: of those who had peeked, 30% of two-year-olds, 50% of three-year olds, and about 80% of eight-year-olds lied about it.
2) The person telling the untruth suffers some form of dementia. For example, an obvious case would be a woman in a memory care facility who tells visiting relatives that she baked a chocolate cake and everyone at the party said how good it was, and Paul Newman came in through the window and danced with her.
Another version, often harder to detect, is the person who has temporal confusion. For example, a man who says that his son came to see him yesterday and it was actually last week. (Think false alibi!)
3) The speaker believes something is true that isn’t. In other words, the speaker is mistaken. It could be a misunderstanding of something seen, read or heard—but it could also be that the speaker was intentionally deceived so that s/he would spread a lie.
Which brings us to real lies as opposed to untruths: to make an untrue statement with the intention to deceive. But writers, go beyond the direct lie and use, half-truths, exaggerations, or pertinent omissions.
Not a rare behavior for people or characters. Indeed, Kendra Cherry writing on verywellmind.com pointed out that actual research about lying is relatively recent, and data replications are hard to come by, but some surveys suggest that as many as 96% of people admit to lying at least sometimes.
In 1996, Bella DePaulo, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, published the results of a study in which 147 people between the ages of 18 and 71 kept a diary of all the falsehoods they told over the course of a week. She found that most people lie at least once or twice every day! Over the course of a week, people lied in approximately 20% of social interactions lasting 10 minutes or more. They deceived about 30% of those they interacted with one-on-one.
Although she didn’t find gender differences in number of lies, there were relationship differences. Parents and teens interactions are often deceitful: “College students lie to their mothers in one out of two conversations.”
Little white lies. These lies are typically meant to do some good—or at least do no harm. For example, complimenting a friend’s shirt when you really think it looks dreadful. Coming late to a meeting and saying you were held up by an accident on the interstate when you really overslept.
Although pretty much everyone is told from a young age that it’s always best to tell the truth, the fact is that telling the truth (about oversleeping, for example) may be punished (for example, by a poor performance review). Thus, society often encourages or even rewards lying.
Some lies may serve as a social lubricant. DePaulo (above) found that 25% of lies were “fake positives” intending to make the other person feel better about someone or something. These were 10 to 20 times more common than lies in which people pretend to like someone or something less than they actually do (fake negatives).
But beware: according to Wanda Thibodeaux on Inc.com, telling lies to spare someone’s feelings is not good in the long run. Yes, we do take the liar’s intention into account, but it also raises doubts about whether a person willing to lie to us actually has our best interests at heart. These lies can cause doubt, uncertainty, suspicion, and trust issues.
White lies made up to excuse being late, unprepared, unwilling to do something, etc. bring into question a character’s ultimate trustworthiness.
Also, telling little white lies can desensitize the liar, making it easier to tell bigger/more serious lies.
People lie for the same reason they do everything else: a lie is the best perceived alternative at the time. Thus, lies are a means to an end, and those ends can be broadly grouped into four overlapping categories; to get what they want, to take the easy way out, to avoid criticism, to build a positive self-image. The likelihood of lying increases when someone is “pushed into a corner” or needs to react quickly.
1) To get what they want. This could be almost anything. In relationships, it might be to attract a partner, to hide cheating, to get a partner to agree to sex, to avoid an argument—and these are just a few possibilities.
In the workplace, lying to get ahead, discredit the competition, get even with a colleague, take credit for someone else’s work, cover up procrastination, avoid being fired, etc.
In any relationship, people lie for quick financial gain, to avoid taking responsibility or unwanted chores, to be liked/popular, or nearly any other objective that the liar sees as more important (at the moment) than the truth.
2) To take the easy way out. This overlaps with the good Little White Lies above, not wanting to deal with hurt feelings, for example. It also includes plagiarizing and making up data in a research project.
3) To avoid criticism. When people aren’t comfortable with some aspect of their behavior, character, or past they are prone to deceive in any of the ways mentioned above (lie, half-truths, exaggerations, intentional omissions). Closely related to inflate one’s image, to cover up for a mistake, or to excuse doing something wrong.
4) To build a positive self-image. Basically, this is lying to oneself. The liar wants something to be true and pretends that it is until eventually s/he believes it. Making excuses for behavior or thoughts or wishes that at some level are unacceptable to the self.
Other reasons people lie
One lie has led to another, especially good for writers. (Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.—Walter Scott)
To be malicious and hurt other people
To take control of a situation
To hide a disorder such as an eating disorder, compulsive gambling, alcoholism, etc., which goes beyond avoiding criticism
It is integral to certain occupations
Pathological lying. A person who feels compelled to lie, and will do so with no apparent benefit to self or others is a pathological liar. This is often part of a diagnosis of a mental health disorder:
Antisocial personality/sociopathy (no regard for right or wrong, no remorse, often become criminals)
Borderline personality (varying moods and behavior, often impulsive, conducive to unstable relationships)
Factitious disorders (acting as if s/he has a physical or mental illness but does not)
The severity and frequency of lying, and the reasons for lying are what point to a psychological problem.
How to tell when someone is lying. (As summarized by Kendra Cherry, above.)
Folk wisdom is wrong. It says that liars tend to fidget, squirm, avoid eye contact or have shifty eyes when lying. Research indicates that these are virtually useless as indicators. (Looking away, for example, is more likely to indicate the person is trying to access long term memory.)
Some of the most accurate (although still weak) indicators of lying:
Being vague, offering few details
Repeating questions before answering them
Speaking in sentence fragments
Failing to provide specific details when a story is challenged
Grooming behavior, such as playing with hair or pressing fingers to lips
More active ways to uncover lies
Ask the person to tell the story in reverse. Increasing the mental load makes lying more difficult—although telling a lie is more mentally taxing than telling the truth anyway.
Trust your instincts. We may have an unconscious, intuitive response to lying that gets drowned out if we spend too much time focusing on the non-verbals stereotypically associated with lying.
Consider an individual’s tells
Successful card players learn to hide when they are bluffing and to identify what the other players do when they have good or bad hands. The same might be true for your characters. Does she blush? Does he stutter? Does he rub his chin? Does she bounce her knee? Does your character have a poker face? And if so, is s/he on the side of good or evil (so to speak).
Bonus info about lying
The closer the liar is to the deceived, the more likely the lies are to be an altruistic (fake positive) one
Women are especially likely to stretch the truth to spare someone’s feelings
Men are more prone to lying about themselves: conversations between two guys contain about eight times as many self-oriented lies as they do falsehoods about other people
Bottom line for writers:
Lying is rampant, so there ought to be at least a little of it in your story
Lying can abet virtually any goal
Lies can be of virtually any size or seriousness
Pay attention to age, relationship, and gender differences