What Is Deception?

Deception refers to the act—big or small, cruel or kind—of causing someone to believe something that is untrue. Even the most honest people practice deception, with various studies showing that the average person lies several times a day. Some of those lies are big (“I’ve never cheated on you!”) but more often, they are little white lies (“That dress looks fine,”) that are deployed to avoid uncomfortable situations or spare someone's feelings.

Deception isn’t always an outward-facing act. There are also the lies people tell themselves, for reasons ranging from healthy maintenance of self-esteem to serious delusions beyond their control. While lying to oneself is generally perceived as harmful, some experts argue that there are certain kinds of self-deception—like believing one can accomplish a difficult goal even if evidence exists to the contrary—that can have a positive effect on overall well-being.

Trust is the bedrock of social life at all levels, from romance and parenting to national government and international treaties. Deception always undermines it.

Is It Possible to Spot a Liar?

Researchers have long searched for ways to definitively detect when someone is lying. One of the best-known methods, the polygraph test, is based on the theory that lying alters normal psychophysiologic patterns that can be detected by sensitive machinery. Although popular in crime dramas and movies, the test has long been controversial, with no evidence that there are definitive fluctuations in physiology. Evidence suggests that those with certain psychiatric disorders like Antisocial Personality Disorder cannot be accurately measured by polygraph or other commonly used lie detection methods.

Many experts propose that liars reveal themselves in "tells," major and minor changes in body language or facial expressions. But evidence indicates that observable signs of lying can be unreliable, and deception detection—even by psychologists—is no greater than chance.

Detection of deception is essential for law enforcement, and the search for reliable methods is ever-ongoing. Many interested parties have shifted their focus away from outward signs of lying to the use of interview techniques that reveal lying. Research suggests that, in strategic situations, the number of words, the type of words, the repetition of words can all help trained interviewers detect deception.

Why We Lie

No one likes being deceived, and when public figures are caught in a lie, it can become a major scandal. But while many people pride themselves on their scrupulous honesty—and try to distance themselves from individuals who are more comfortable with falsehoods—the truth is that everyone lies, for a variety of reasons. In fact, some experts suggest that a certain amount of deception may be necessary for maintaining a healthy, functioning society. The formal study of deception was once the domain of ethicists and theologians, but more recently, psychologists have turned their attention to why people lie, and the conditions that make them more likely to do so.

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