Psychology of Lying

Tamsen Butler
Man with hand over mouth
Learn common traits of compulsive liars...

The psychology of lying can be a complicated concept because people lie for different reasons. While some people lie in an attempt to avoid punishment or to avoid hurting someone else's feelings, others lie out of impulse or because they want to present themselves as someone they are not.

The Reason for Lies

There are many explanations for why people lie. Everyone tells lies once in a while, although the number and severity of the lies varies from one person to another.

Why do people lie? When looking at the psychology of lying, there are several reasons why people tell lies. Small "white lies" are told to avoid embarrassment or avoid hurting someone else's feelings, and these lies are generally considered insignificant.

The Psychology of Lying

On the other spectrum, however, are people who tell lies pathologically. They feel a compulsion to tell lies and may lie for no apparent benefit whatsoever. People in this category often qualify for a diagnosis of a mental health disorder as designated by the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Common diagnoses associated with patients who consistently lie include:

  • Antisocial Personality Disorder
  • Borderline Personality Disorder
  • Histrionic Personality Disorder
  • Factitious Disorders

Other mental disorders exist that may result in patients telling lies, but not realizing that what they are saying is not true. Examples include Paranoid Personality Disorder or some of the Dissociative Disorders.

Furthermore, some people are led to lie as a result of their disorder even though the disorder itself does not directly cause the lying. For example, a person diagnosed with an eating disorder may lie about caloric intake in an attempt to avoid eating another meal, or a compulsive gambler may lie about how much money was spent at a trip to the casino. On the other hand, some people who lie have no mental disorder at all.

The Neurology of Lying

Neuropsychologists know that there is a distinct difference in brain activity when a person tells the truth as opposed to when a person tells a lie. Different parts of the brain are used to deliberately tell a falsehood than are used to speak the truth, so from a neuropsychological viewpoint, there is a distinct difference between the two.This is the reason why there is a physical reaction to the act of telling a lie. There is much more to telling a lie than meets the eye.

Everyday Lying

Lies are common. People studying the psychology of lying will soon find that telling lies does not automatically indicate any type of mental disorder. Even if there is an instance where a person tells a lie without first considering the reasoning behind it or the consequences resulting from the lie, this is not considered a symptom of psychopathology. It would only be considered a symptom if the person does this often and it has negative effects on his or her life.

Lying takes many forms, whether it is mere exaggeration or blatant untruths. It is the severity of the lies, the frequency of the lies and the reasoning behind the lies that points to a psychological problem.


People who have psychological problems that result in perpetual lying can seek treatment with a competent behavioral professional. Treatment may include counseling, behavior modification or contracts between the patient and therapist that include negative consequences for lying and positive reinforcements when the patient consistently tells the truth.

If you have trouble with a compulsion to lie despite efforts to stop, consider seeking out professional assistance from a specialist who has experience in helping people who cannot seem to stop lying. Lying is well researched in the field of psychology, and for this reason there is hope for people who have a problem with compulsively telling lies for whatever reason.

Psychology of Lying