Illustrated silhouette of a man's head with long wooden "Pinocchio" nose representing lying.

According to The New York Times, one story about Queen Victoria and Prince Albert involves them challenging their guests to find a common word that isn’t a common thing. Someone responded: “Is it ‘truth’ or ‘honesty’?”

Lying is pervasive, according to both seminal research and anecdotal evidence. A 1996 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that most people lie once or twice a day. That’s about as common as — in the words of a Psychology Today article — how often people brush their teeth. Ironically, 48 percent of children in the United Kingdom lie “occasionally” or “all the time” to their parents about brushing their teeth, based on a study commissioned by dentists behind a toothbrush-tracking app.

Thankfully, recent research points to people being honest most of the time. According to the Journal of Language and Social Psychology, a few prolific liars tell the majority of lies. Yet, more questions remain. Why do people lie? What are some of the most common lies?

The following sections take a brief look at some of the major topics surrounding dishonesty.

Why People Lie

One of the biggest questions about lying surrounds motive. It’s a multifaceted topic, but researchers have broken down why people lie systematically. National Geographic compiled findings about why people lie and placed the reasons into four major categories.

  • To Promote Yourself: Just fewer than half of lies (44%) provide the person who lies with some sort of advantage or benefit outside of protection. The person can benefit financially (16%), offer the person benefits outside of money (15%), help the person create a better self-image (8%), or allow the person to appear humorous by making others laugh (5%).
  • To Protect Yourself: The other major reason people lie is for protection. Just more than one-third of all lies (36%) cover up some type of mistake or misdeed (22%), or they help avoid other people (14%).
  • To Impact Others: A small minority of lies (11%) affect other people. Lies in this category help others (5%), hurt others (4%), or are made to be polite or uphold social roles (2%).
  • Unclear: The smallest category of lies revolves around uncertainty (9%). Most are unclear to the person who lies (7%), and the rest are deemed pathological (2%). A study in Applied Cognitive Psychology found that consistent lying increases belief in a lied-about event and decreases belief in true events. Lying can distort people’s perception and confidence in what’s true.

Examining Lies

Understanding the nature of lies can be broken down further by investigating their nature. For instance, there are types of lies that reveal how something becomes a lie. In addition, on a more practical level, it can be helpful to see what some of the most common lies are in day-to-day life.

Types of Lies

How are lies actually constructed? Here are some of the most popular types of lies.

  • Bold: Bold lies, otherwise known as bold-faced or barefaced lies, are obvious to people who hear the lies. These types of lies are so egregious that they’re seen in children more often than adults.
  • Deceptive: Deceptive lies are crafted carefully and skillfully, with the intent to mislead the person on the receiving end. These lies are often subtle and hard to detect.
  • Denial: Denial involves refusing to acknowledge something that’s true.
  • Error: Lies can happen by mistake. People may believe what they’re saying is true, even if that isn’t the case.
  • Exaggeration: Exaggerations make the false assertion that something is greater or better. For instance, people may try to paint a more attractive picture of themselves by saying they’re more successful than they are. Another example is people over-promising something to make up for a mistake.
  • Fabrication: Fabrications deliberately make up a story or something that’s not true. These types of lies tend to be overt and can be a mark of desperation.
  • Minimization: Minimizations lessen the extent of something. Often, these types of lies involve rationalization and take place when people can’t completely deny the truth. Minimizations are the opposite of exaggerations.
  • Omission: Lies of omission leave out part of the truth. For many people, omission is easier to engage in than other types of lies because omission is passive and doesn’t involve making up anything.

The Most Common Lies

Some of the most common lies are white lies, which are typically considered to be harmless, trivial, or mundane. For instance, when people are asked about how they’re doing, they may say that they’re fine even if that’s not the case. Although many white lies are well-intentioned and may be considered harmless, they can still harm people emotionally, as marriage and family therapist Julia Breur told Psychology Today. “I recommend that when you are about to tell a white lie, take a moment and ask yourself why not just tell the truth – slow down and think out how to kindly express your truth,” she said.

Research has revealed a number of areas where people lie on a regular basis, and especially on their résumés and in interviews. In 2017, 85 percent of employers caught applicants lying on résumés or applications, up from 66 percent five years prior, according to Inc. CNN Money reported that not only have 23 percent of job seekers lied or would lie during an interview, but “even the experts admit that being too honest can be to your detriment.” The article followed that advice. It recommended that readers proceed with “the artful dodge” across three steps: “dance around the facts,” “inflate your number fairly,” and “focus on greater truths.”

Another area where common lies occur is when patients speak to their doctors. A study published in Jama Network Open found that about 81 percent of patients lied to their doctors in at least one of seven scenarios:

  • Not adhering to prescription medication as instructed
  • Not exercising regularly or at all
  • Not understanding a doctor’s instructions
  • Disagreeing with a doctor’s recommendations
  • Maintaining an unhealthy diet
  • Taking a specific medication
  • Taking someone else’s medication

Why do people lie to their doctors?

More than 50 percent of patients admitted that it’s because they were embarrassed, either about their habits or their lack of understanding. Dishonesty was highest among patients with the poorest health. Unfortunately, those patients “are in (the) greatest need of high-quality health care because of the complexity of their health may be more likely to compromise their care by withholding important information from their clinician,” the report said.

A final example of common lies comes from the internet. One study published in Computers in Human Behavior found that in virtual areas like social media and online dating websites, 16 to 32 percent reported being honest and only 0 to 2 percent expected others’ honesty. The reasons behind these common lies were to appear more attractive, for privacy or protection concerns, or, in the words of some respondents, “because everyone lies on the internet.” According to the Pew Research Center, 15 percent of U.S. adults have used online dating sites or mobile dating apps, and 59 percent believe that online dating is a good way to meet people.

Responding to Dishonest Behavior

Determining when people lie to you isn’t always easy, but there are typically signs that can indicate dishonesty. Someone may be lying to you if they scratch or fidget, stare or look away at a critical moment, stutter, or have changes in lip movements, facial complexion, or voice pitch/volume, according to body language experts interviewed in TIME.

What to do is also complicated and depends on the situation. For instance, how you respond to an outlandish lie told by your child will differ from a deceptive lie from a stranger and a fabricated lie from a co-worker. In professional environments, emotional intelligence expert Travis Bradberry stressed in a Forbes article that protecting yourself is not an option when dealing with a liar. Optional courses of action include: doing nothing when no action is justified; deflecting with humor when the lie can’t be ignored, but it doesn’t warrant anything more than a joke; playing dumb by asking questions, which can help the truth come out and give the liar a chance to come clean; and calling them out on the lie, carefully.

Lying is an often negative, yet relatively common, occurrence. However, it provides insight into more than matters of honesty. Lying offers understanding into subjects like trust, relationships, and values. If you’d like to learn more, an online psychology degree can help you understand topics in human behavior and how to apply them in a clinical setting.

Gain the skills and knowledge needed to pursue entry-level employment in the growing mental health services field or for graduate study. At Husson University, you’ll enjoy small class sizes and a flexible online schedule that allow you to balance your studies with your busy life. More than 95 percent of Husson graduates are employed or in graduate school within one year of graduation.