This article is about the telling of falsehoods. For other meanings of this word, see lie (disambiguation).

A lie is a statement made by someone who believes or suspects it to be false, in the expectation that the hearers may believe it. Thus a true statement may be a lie if the speaker thinks it is false. Fictions, though false, are not lies. Depending on definitions, a lie can be a genuine falsehood or a selective truth, a lie by omission, or even the truth if the intention is to deceive or to cause an action not in the listener's interests. To lie is to tell a lie. A person who tells a lie, and especially a person who habitually tells lies, is a liar.


Morality of lying

Lying is against the moral standards of many people and is specifically prohibited as a sin in many religions. Ethical traditions and philosophers are divided over whether a lie is ever allowable but are generally opposed—Plato said yes, whereas Aristotle, Saint Augustine and Kant said no.

In many countries affected by World War II, it is understood that lying to protect people from an immoral oppressor is generally permissable.

Lying in a way that escalates rather than de-escalates a conflict is usually considered the worst sin.

A liar is a person who is known to have a tendency to tell lies. People's tolerance for liars is generally very small, and it is often only necessary to be caught lying once to be labelled as a liar and not trusted again. This is of course moderated by the importance of the matter being lied about.

Jocular lying, more commonly known as kidding around, deceit for the purpose of humor, when the falsehood is generally understood, is often regarded as not immoral and is widely practiced by humorists and comedians.

The philosopher Leo Strauss stressed the necessity of lying in order to conceal a strategic position, or to aid diplomacy. So did earlier figures in political philosophy from Niccol Machiavelli to Plato's "noble lie".

It seems extremely unlikely that lies will ever be entirely eliminated from politics, law or diplomacy, just as they cannot be removed from the warfare that these activities are, ultimately, supposed to help pre-empt.

Lying distinguished from bullshitting

In his book On Bullshit (2005), Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfort suggests that lying and bullshitting are not the same thing. A liar differs from a truth-teller in that the former wants to hide the truth while the latter wants to reveal it; but both are very much aware of what the truth is. A liar must remain mindful of the truth, if only so that he does not inadvertently reveal it. A bullshitter, however, is utterly indifferent to the truth. He would not mind if his statements turn out, by accident, to be true. For example, a bank robber who denies that he robbed the bank is a liar; but a car salesman who assures a buyer, without bothering to check, that the car he is trying to sell has been driven only 10,000 miles is a bullshitter. The salesman would not care if it were to turn out that his claim is true after all. He simply does not care what is the truth of the matter.

Etiquette of lying

Etiquette is largely concerned with questions of lying, blaming and hypocrisy - things often decried in ethics but of great utility in society:

The moral reasons to tolerate lies have mostly to do with avoiding conflict. An ethical code will often specify when the truth is required, and when not. In courtrooms, for instance, the adversarial process and standard of evidence that applies restricts questions so that the need for a witness to lie is reduced - thus the truth on the matter at hand is supposed to be more easily revealed.

The need to sometimes lie is recognized in the term White Lie (or officious lie), where the lie is harmless, and there are circumstances where there is an expectation to be less than totally honest through necessity or pragmatism. Lies can be divided into classes - injurious or malicious, officious, and jocose, of which only the first class is serious (Catholicism classes the first as a mortal sin but also condemns the others as venial).

There are some types of lie that are considered acceptable, desirable, or even mandatory, due to social convention. Types of conventional lie include:

  • use of euphemisms to avoid explicit mention of something distasteful;
  • insincere enquiries after the health of a person not well known;
  • assurance of good health in response to insincere enquiry (enquirers are often most disconcerted by anything other than the briefest possible positive response);
  • excuses to avoid or terminate an undesired social encounter;
  • assurance that a social encounter is desired or has been pleasurable;
  • telling a dying person whatever they want to hear;
  • concealment of a breach of taboo.

Most people engage in such conventional lying, and do not apply the usual moral disapproval of lying to such situations. Conventional lies are viewed as a lesser category of lie, similar to white lies. However, a minority of people view them as malicious lies.

Paradox of lying

Lying is the subject of many paradoxes, the most famous one being known as the liar paradox, commonly expressed as "This sentence is a lie," or "This sentence is false." The so-called Epimenides paradox -- "All Cretans are liars," as stated by Epimenides the Cretan -- is a forerunner of this, though its status as a paradox is disputed. A class of related logic puzzles are known as knights and knaves, in which the goal is to determine who of a group of people is lying and who is telling the truth.

Much ethical dilemma is based on related ethical paradox on issues of lying. Some famous ones include the question of whether anyone, hiding refugees from an oppressive and racist government, might owe the truth to an official who comes asking where they are.

Psychology of lying

The capacity of hominids to lie is noted early and nearly universally in human development and language studies with Great Apes. One famous lie by the latter was when Koko the Gorilla, confronted by her handlers after a tantrum in which she had torn a steel sink out of its moorings, signed in American Sign Language, "cat did it," pointing at her tiny kitten. It is unclear if this was a joke or a genuine attempt at blaming her tiny pet.

Evolutionary psychology is concerned with the theory of mind which people employ to simulate another's reaction to their story and determine if a lie will be believable. The most commonly cited milestone in the rising of this, what is known as Machiavellian intelligence, is at the human age of about four and a half years, when children begin to be able to lie convincingly. Before this, they seem simply unable to comprehend that anyone doesn't see the same view of events that they do - and seem to assume that there is only one point of view—their own—that must be integrated into any given story.

Paradoxically, a Big Lie is often easier to get people to believe, and more difficult for them to challenge even when facts contradict it. Propaganda is often based on choosing some very large but comfortable lie which is hard to challenge for social status or other reasons - and spreading this throughout a whole society.

Sociology and linguistics of lying

Lying and blaming are so basic to society that it is hard to formally study them. George Lakoff, in criticizing some claims of George W. Bush made prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, notes that

Are they lies—or are they merely exaggerations, misleading statements, mistakes, rhetorical excesses and so on? Linguists study such matters. The most startling finding is that, in considering whether a statement is a lie, the least important consideration for most people is whether it is true! The more important considerations are, Did he believe it? Did he intend to deceive? Was he trying to gain some advantage or to harm someone else? Is it a serious matter, or a trivial one? Is it "just" a matter of political rhetoric? Most people will grant that, even if the statement happened to be false, if he believed it, wasn't trying to deceive, and was not trying to gain advantage or harm any one, then there was no lie. If it was a lie in the service of a good cause, then it was a white lie. If it was based on faulty information, then it was an honest mistake. If it was just there for emphasis, then it was an exaggeration.
These have been among the administration's defenses. The good cause: liberating Iraq. The faulty information: from the CIA. The emphasis: enthusiasm for a great cause. Even though there is evidence that the President and his advisers knew the information was false, they can deflect the use of the L-word. The falsehoods have been revealed and they, in themselves, do not matter much to most people.

Lies and trust

One reason that lying may persist as a strategy in social settings is that it is not the comparison of the facts against some abstract notion of truth, but rather, the assessment of whether or not a betrayal of trust has occurred, that determines the response to a lie.

In the case of the Iraq war, for instance, the fact that lies escalated a conflict may have made it a quite serious breach of trust and betrayal of those who would suffer in that conflict. However, anyone who accepts as true the assertion that the regime in place was an inevitable threat to those who perished fighting it, or whose lives are at risk in the aftermath of the invasion, would be far less likely to consider escalating the conflict at the most convenient time to be any kind of betrayal. The perspective of the common sense conservative quite often relies on this kind of assumption of certainty. But if conflicts that are to be escalated are chosen due to some ideology, it is hard to see how this differs from simple might makes right logic.

Lies during childhood

Lying begins at an early age. Young children learn from experience that stating an untruth can avoid punishment for misdeeds, before they develop the theory of mind necessary to understand why it works. In this stage of development, children will sometimes tell fantastic and unbelievable lies, resembling the lie of Koko the Gorilla discussed above, because they lack the conceptual framework to judge whether a statement is believable or even to understand the concept of believability.

When children first learn how lying works, naturally they lack the moral understanding to refrain from doing it. It takes years of watching people lie and the results of lies to develop a proper understanding. Propensity to lie varies greatly between children, some doing so habitually and others being habitually honest. Habits in this regard are likely to change into early adulthood.

Some view children as on the whole more prone to lie than adults. Others argue that the amount of lying stays the same, but adults lie about different things. Certainly adult lying tends to be more sophisticated. A lot of this judgement depends on whether one counts tactful untruths, social insincerity, political rhetoric, and other standard adult behaviours as lying.

Lie detection

The question of whether lies can reliably be detected through non-verbal means is a subject of particular controversy.

  • Polygraph lie detector machines measure the physiological stress a subject endures in a number of measures while he or she gives statements or answers questions. Spikes in stress are said to indicate lying behavior. The accuracy of this method is widely disputed, and in several well-known cases it was proven to have been deceived. Nonetheless, it remains in use in many areas.
  • Various truth drugs have been proposed and used anecdotally, though none is considered very reliable. The CIA attempted to find a universal "truth serum" in the MK-ULTRA project, but it was largely a fiasco.

More recently, neuroscientists have found that lying activates completely different brain structures during MRI scans, which may lead to a more accurate (if impractical) method of lie detection.

Related topic

See also


Frankfort, Harry: On Bullshit Princeton University Press (2005).

External links

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