Why Do People Lie?

We tell ourselves stories all the time in order to make sense of the world around us. It’s a process known as rationalisation. We also tell ourselves stories about us and who we are as individuals. Because nobody wants to be a bad person, our own storytelling usually sheds a positive light on us. Sometimes, that positive light comes at the cost of tweaking, sifting or fabricating the narrative –  often justifying wrong means with noble ends. In other words, we secretly tell ourselves that it’s not that bad to lie a little, as long as it is for a ‘good cause’.


Read the two headlines below:

“Donald Trump and members of the UK Conservative Party caught explicitly conspiring against the rights of ethnical minorities”


“UK MP Keir Starmer, US President Joe Biden and other members of their parties involved in corruption scandal of unprecedented magnitude for both the UK and the US”

Those claims are both actually fake, and did not make it into any headlines. You probably knew or at least suspected that as you were reading them. Still, unless you are completely indifferent to politics in those countries, one of them probably made you feel at the same time angry and satisfied (because, at least hypothetically, it confirmed what you might have suspected, with wrongdoers caught and likely to be punished) and the other made you feel more sceptical and uncomfortable (as you didn’t like reading it, and maybe hoped it really wasn’t true). You’re probably also more likely to want to share the one that confirms your views without investigating it further (research shows fake news travels faster, further and deeper, and that we have read only the headlines of most news we share). If an NGO trusted you with £100 million in the bank just to fight those false claims, chances are you would invest more fighting the one that made you the most uncomfortable, or at least begin with it – and you will find plenty of rational arguments to justify it (or “rationalise” it). Some people would likely not invest any money at all combating the one that made them slightly satisfied, even knowing it’s also false (here, again, under a repertoire of ‘reasonable’ arguments).

Are we bad people for doing that?

Whether people are good or bad is a philosophical question that has been debated for centuries (indeed millennia), and one that depends on the often abstract definition of those ideas. However, many studies seem to suggest that humans are naturally inclined to cooperate, support each other and seek a greater ‘common good’ (in his book Humankind: A Hopeful History, for example, the Dutch historian Rutger Bergman gathers tens of those studies, and revisits the flaws in studies pointing otherwise). For most people, that would fall into their definition of being good.

So why do good people do bad things?

It seems like the very same mechanisms that make us good, under the above definition, can also make us do bad things. In 1963, the Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram published an experiment that measured the willingness of participants to obey an authority figure who instructed them to administer electric shocks to a ‘learner’. These electric shocks – which were in reality fake – gradually increased to levels that would have been very dangerous and even life-threatening had they been real. As a large share of people followed the orders thoroughly, the study concluded that people are willing to do bad things when instructed to do so – and was used, among other things, to help explain Nazism. However, by taking a closer look at the experiment, Rutger Bergman noticed two important factors that were originally disregarded. First, that people didn’t follow the rules blindly – all participants stopped following orders when they felt like the authority figure had become too rough. Second, looking at their interviews, that those participants were only willing to apply the shocks because they believed that by doing so they were helping achieve something good (helping the community, helping science, helping find a cure for diseases etc). In other words, Bergman concludes, humans are only willing to do bad things when they believe it serves a greater good. Other studies have independently come to very similar conclusions (see for reference psychologist Don Mixon in his 1972 study Instead of Deception and psychologists Alex Haslam and Steve Reicher in 2002 for BBC’s Experiment).

Is this a bad mechanism?

When reading about Milgram’s experiment, you might think to yourself that you wouldn’t be willing to electrocute someone in the name of science. But the willingness to deceive, hurt and even kill other people in the name of a greater good lies in all of us. Many achievements which we consider universally good have been conquered through pain and suffering. We appreciate the liberal freedoms triggered by the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, when that came at the cost of a lot of blood. We appreciate the democratic world defended by the Allies in the Second World War, when that cost the life of many Germans (many of whom did not share Hitler’s ideology, and were actually fighting to help their friends at the trench and their communities – motives we’d otherwise find noble). We admire Malcom X in his fight against racism, when he openly defended the use of violence as way to achieve better conditions for the black community. Those causes would probably have been possible – although much less likely successful – with less bloodshed (Martin Luther King Jr, for example, defended a non-violent fight for equal rights). But as long as they advance what we see as the greater good (peace, freedom, equality and democracy, for example) they seem to broadly justify the damage we inflict. Like it or not, we are largely machiavellian – and it is important that we know so.

“But the willingness to deceive, hurt and even kill other people in the name of a greater good lies in all of us. Many achievements which we consider universally good have been conquered through pain and suffering”

Is lying ever good?

If you walked around carrying a polygraph or a magic lie detector, you would notice that people lie all the time (including, very likely, yourself). They often do so for thinking their lie is harmless, excusable and done in the name of a greater good – what we sometimes call a ‘white lie’. So even when we think lying is wrong we still choose to do it if we believe it’s the path to something good.

This is the very logic behind misinformation. From journalists to blogs and social media posts, most of the people creating and spreading misleading information aren’t trying to steer chaos in the world, but rather using it as a tool to more easily advance causes and win battles.

When it comes to information of public interest, however, there are no white lies.

Information is the main tool we have to build our opinions – our very definition of what is good and bad. When we lie to influence people’s opinions, we are corrupting the very ground of those views and depriving them of their ability to properly choose what causes to defend. In other words, misinformation strips people from their autonomy. Opinions that are built on misinformation are not legitimate from a democratic point of view. Any actions stemming from those opinions will advance causes which people would very possibly not support had they been exposed to the whole or true picture. A country where citizens don’t have access to quality information can therefore not be called a true democracy.

Moreover, misinformation deeply threatens the trust people have in information means, which can only have a very negative effect on society in the long term, regardless of personal views and political positions. Just like in the Boy Who Cried Wolf tale, lie after lie we threaten a system that was designed to protect us. When people realise they are lied to, they have a harder time believing anything else they read on the press, even when it’s true – which makes them much more likely to resort to ‘alternative sources’ and make less informed (and worse) decisions.

Misinformation happens not only when we create false or misleading content, but also when we share it. We are much more likely to fact-check news we don’t agree with, and to pass along articles that make us angry or satisfied without much further investigation. Passing along a lie is often more destructive than creating it – we trigger a chain reaction that can give an enormous platform to those liers. Overcoming the misinformation crisis therefore requires our full commitment to the truth, even and especially when we don’t like it.

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