Yasmine Ross
Written & Posted by Yasmine RossRelationship Coach, Writer

The Psychology of Lying and What To Do When You Feel Lied To

10 May, 2024
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Why People Lie — and How to Cope When They Do

Let’s face the truth. We all lie. Most of us tell little white lies to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. Some of us tell big lies and convince ourselves of its virtue. In this blog post we will explore how lying is an intrinsic aspect of human behaviour that traverses cultural boundaries and what we should do about it in the context of close (romantic) relationships, (or any relationship for that matter.)

The Biology of Lying

Lying is a complex behaviour that involves an interconnected set of brain structures. Therefore, damage in these areas due to brain injury or congenital disorders can lead to compulsive lying. One of the core areas of the brain involved in lying is the frontal lobes, particularly the prefrontal cortex, which is the area of the brain that is responsible for impulse control, decision-making and executive functioning. Studies involving neuroimaging of this area of the brain show that the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), has been implicated in pathological lying. Damage or abnormalities in the PFC may impair an individual's ability to inhibit or control their lying behavior

The frontal-subcortical circuit, which connects the prefrontal cortex to subcortical structures such as the basal ganglia and thalamus, have also been indicated as neurological correlations of lying. These circuits are involved in regulating motor control, decision-making, and reward processing, and abnormalities in these circuits have been implicated in various impulse control disorders, including compulsive lying.

Other areas of the brain involved in lying include the anterior cingulate cortex, and the frontal-subcortical circuits. The anterior cingulate cortex is involved in cognitive processes related to monitoring and detecting errors, as well as regulating emotions and social behavior. Dysfunction in the ACC may contribute to difficulties in recognizing the consequences of lying or experiencing guilt or remorse for deceptive behavior.

So the next time you’re in a situation where lying seems to disrupt the peace in your relationships, perhaps reflect on whether the person lying has experienced any previous injuries or suffered any stress to the brain, as these outcomes may directly impact their tendency to lie. Seeking a psychological professional is also an option and a good idea if you’re looking for guidance.

The Anthropology of Lying

Let’s look at humans across the globe and across time. Evolutionarily, lying is a good survival strategy. Lying can be advantageous in social interactions, allowing individuals to manipulate others for personal gain or to avoid punishment. This ability to deceive may have provided an evolutionary advantage in certain contexts, such as competing for resources or mates.

Research in anthropology suggests that lying can serve important social functions within a community. For example, some anthropologists argue that certain forms of deception, such as bluffing or exaggeration, play a role in maintaining social hierarchies and resolving conflicts without resorting to violence.

Anthropologically, lying has been observed across cultures and societies, suggesting it is a universal aspect of human behaviour. However, the acceptability and prevalence of lying can vary widely between cultures. Some cultures may place a higher value on honesty and transparency, while others may view deception as a necessary social skill. Additionally, the perception of lying can be influenced by cultural norms and moral beliefs. What constitutes a lie in one culture may be considered acceptable behavior in another.

The reasons for lying can also vary greatly. People may lie to protect themselves or others, to gain advantage or avoid punishment, to maintain social harmony, or simply out of habit. Martha Kauppi, author of Polyamory: A Clinical Toolkit for Therapists (And Their Clients) (2021), says that truth-telling is like a muscle. It needs to be practised.

So is lying okay? It depends on the context!

So if it seems fundamentally human to some degree to lie, does it mean it’s okay to? In some cultures, lying may be more tolerated or even considered acceptable under certain circumstances, while in others, honesty is highly valued and lying is generally frowned upon. Here are a few cultural contexts where lying might be perceived differently high context cultures (non-Western cultures) and Machiavellian Cultures:

High Context Cultures (meaning, there’s a high level of assumed context): In cultures where communication relies heavily on implicit understanding and context, such as many Asian, Latin American and Middle Eastern cultures, there may be more room for ambiguity and indirectness in speech. High context cultures are collectivistic. Collectivistic cultures value group harmony (sometimes seen in the action of maintaining the face of a family’s reputation above all else). This can sometimes involve withholding or distorting information without explicitly lying. In these cultures, "white lies" are accepted, especially when it spares someone's feelings or to maintain politeness.

Machiavellian Cultures: In cultures where strategic thinking, cunning, and resourcefulness are highly valued, such as some parts of Mediterranean and South Asian cultures, lying may be seen as a skillful means to achieve one's goals or outmanoeuvre opponents. This can extend into cultures with corrupt systems, such as certain regions in Africa or parts of Eastern Europe, where lying may be viewed as a necessary survival tactic or a way to navigate life. However, in every culture, there exists people who choose more machiavellian ways of being and others who don’t.

Let’s look at the differences between high context cultures and low context cultures more closely.

High Context Cultures:

  • In high context cultures, communication relies heavily on non-verbal cues, implicit understanding, and shared cultural knowledge.
  • These cultures often place a high value on relationships, harmony, and group cohesion.
  • People in high context cultures tend to communicate indirectly, relying on gestures, facial expressions, tone of voice, and situational cues to convey meaning.
  • Examples of high context cultures include many East Asian cultures (such as Japan, China, and Korea), Middle Eastern cultures, and some Mediterranean cultures.
  • In high context cultures, much of the meaning is embedded in the context of the interaction, and people are expected to understand unspoken messages and underlying meanings.

Low Context Cultures:

  • In contrast, low context cultures rely more on explicit verbal communication and tend to place less emphasis on shared context and cultural knowledge.
  • These cultures often value individualism, clarity, and directness in communication.
  • People in low context cultures tend to communicate more directly and explicitly, stating their intentions and expectations clearly.
  • Examples of low context cultures include many Western cultures, such as those in North America and Northern Europe, where communication tends to be more explicit and straightforward.
  • In low context cultures, much of the meaning is conveyed through the words themselves, rather than relying heavily on non-verbal cues or shared context.

So if some degree of lying is so embedded in human nature, particularly in high context cultures, why do we react with such astonishment or indignation when confronted with deception? The answer lies in society's deeply ingrained moralization of truth-telling as superior to lying.Throughout history, cultures across the globe have upheld truthfulness as a cornerstone of ethical conduct, often intertwining it with notions of integrity, trustworthiness, and honour. When individuals deviate from this moral standard, they receive condemnation. Some say that this promotes a sense of orderliness in society, in the face of potential chaos, while others perceive condemnation as a mechanism which leverages guilt for control of individuals.

What about the types of lies people tell?

There are different kinds of lies and in some cultures, you are perceived as being unintelligent if you don’t know how to embellish the truth once in a while. Here are a few types of lies:

White Lies: These are often considered most cultures as being harmless. These are lies told to avoid hurting someone's feelings or to maintain social harmony. Examples include complimenting someone's appearance even if you don't truly find it attractive or pretending to enjoy a meal that you didn't like. Be warned. Most people can tell when you’re telling a white lie but if they don’t call you out on it, it’s likely because they feel that it would be impolite too.
Lies of Omission: Lies of omission occur when individuals intentionally or unintentionally withhold relevant information. When it’s intentional, it’sto manipulate or deceive others. This can involve deliberately leaving out key details or failing to disclose important facts. When it’s unintentionally done, it might be because this person grew up in a high context culture or is just blissfully unaware of your need for contextual information.
Exaggerations: Exaggerations involve stretching the truth or embellishing facts to make a story more interesting or impressive. A common cocktail party trick that’s generally socially acceptable in western culture. While not necessarily outright lies, exaggerations can mislead others from knowing the truth. I advise helping society gain clear forward motion by being as close to the truth as possible. You’ll have to get your ego stroked another way.
Lies for Self-Preservation: These lies are told to protect oneself from negative consequences or to avoid punishment. This could include lying about one's actions or intentions to evade responsibility or avoid facing repercussions.
Compulsive Lies: Compulsive lying involves a habitual pattern of lying that may be driven by underlying psychological factors such as low self-esteem, insecurity, or a need for attention or validation. Some experts say that compulsive behaviour is related to biological abnormalities in the Prefrontal Cortex, Anterior Cingulate Cortex, Amygdala or a dysregulation in dopamine and serotonin.
Blatant Fabrications: Fabrications involve creating false information or stories with the intention of deceiving others. This could include exaggerating achievements, inventing elaborate excuses, or providing false alibis. With some grace given to the individuals’ level of awareness, or cultural context or motivation, this is more often than not blatantly manipulative.

Not every lie in every situation is going to require professional intervention. But certainly compulsive and blatant manipulation requires expert assessment and potential intervention.

So what do we do when we catch our partner (or best friend) in a lie?

You feel lied to. Now what? Take this 9 step method to get grounded again.

  1. Communicate Openly: talk about how receiving this lie felt like in your body. Be vulnerable and open about how it has impacted you. Try not to take it personally. Avoid moralization or acting holier than thou and strive to understand the reasons they lied.
  2. Systematically explore what has shaped your belief systems about lying. Did people in your family of origin lie? To what degree lying is considered acceptable in your culture? What were some of the key messages you heard in childhood about lying, truth-telling, deception, and open communication?
  3. Explore honesty in your life. Has there been times in which honesty hurt?
  4. Now that you’ve explored the messages from your autobiographical memories, your family of origin, your culture and society, discuss to what degree you value lying versus truth telling and why.
  5. Seek Understanding: Try to understand the reasons behind the lie. Was it meant to protect someone's feelings, avoid conflict, or conceal something more serious? Understanding the motivations behind the lie can help you navigate the situation more effectively. Also consider, are they from a culture of high context or low context? Did they grow up in a more collectivistic culture? Understanding does not mean your feelings are not being honoured but these things are important to name.
  6. Discuss the communication culture that naturally occurs between the two of you. Whether you tend to fall in the camp of low context or high context ways of communicating, or whether you value group harmony more or individualistic expression.
  7. Be clear on your boundaries: what level of dishonesty is acceptable? Some people will accept white lies, but others do not accept this level of inauthenticity if it’s pervasive.
  8. Discuss Expectations for Ground Rules Going Forward: decide what the new status quo is for your dyad. Are you going to endeavour towards blatant expression, even if you think it’s going to hurt the other person? Or will you communicate in ways that soften the blow?
  9. Once you feel fully cleared, commit to moving on from this moment. Your relationship will not succeed if you continue to harbour feelings of resentment. Remember, it’s not about trust. Everyone lies. You can guarantee that. It’s a matter of to what degree and with what level of self-awareness and intention to deceive.

Why is it important to be that thoroughwith processing our hurts?

Being thorough in processing our hurts is important when nurturing the resilience and longevity of our relationships. Conflict and emotional pain are unavoidable aspects of any intimate connection, and the way we approach and resolve these issues significantly influences the quality of our bond with our partner. Therefore laying down the groundwork for a secure functioning relationship requires this level of analysis and understanding.

By delving deeply into our emotional wounds and addressing them with sincerity and empathy, we establish a sturdy foundation for a relationship characterized by security and mutual understanding. Transparency and open communication serve as indispensable pillars in such relationships, fostering genuine connection and fostering a profound sense of intimacy. A thorough understanding of our partner's internal landscape, including their upbringing and familial dynamics, allows us to cultivate empathy and compassion in our interactions, strengthening the emotional bond between us. This level of clarity becomes especially important if you’re in an non-monogamous relationship or when considering opening up your relationship, as it introduces additional layers of complexity and potential for misunderstanding. In such contexts, discomfort in telling the truth may arise due to ingrained psychological patterns or societal norms. Therefore, engaging in thorough processing of our hurts equips us with the tools to navigate these challenges with grace and understanding, ultimately deepening the trust and intimacy shared between partners and fostering a resilient and fulfilling relationship dynamic.

Leave it to the psychology professionals.

Human beings are deeply complex creatures, therefore it can be extremely helpful to trust psychology professionals in guiding you through these complexities of interpersonal relationships. Humans are multifaceted beings, and the dynamics of truth-telling and deception can profoundly impact the foundation of trust in relationships. While encountering a lie from a partner or close friend can indeed shake the bedrock of trust, it's essential to recognize that not every falsehood leads to irreparable harm. Often, individuals resort to harmless white lies or omissions as social lubricants, without intending harm. However, when lying becomes pervasive and manipulative, it can swiftly escalate into a form of psychological abuse, eroding trust and undermining the well-being of those involved. Tuning into one's intuition and emotional responses is crucial in discerning when a situation feels off-kilter, prompting the need for professional intervention. Seeking guidance from psychology professionals offers a valuable opportunity to unpack complex emotions, gain clarity on relational dynamics, and explore healthier ways of navigating interpersonal challenges. Ultimately, listen to your body. If you don’t feel good about a situation, seeking professional guidance can help you on your journey to self-discovery, healing, and relational growth, fostering resilience and well-being in connections with others.


The intricate nature of lying spans across cultures and epochs, deeply intertwined with the complexities of human behaviour and societal norms. Whether it's the neurological underpinnings in the brain's frontal lobes or the anthropological significance across diverse societies, lying is a multifaceted phenomenon that impacts our relationships in profound ways.

Navigating the delicate balance between truthfulness and deception isn’t always easy. But being able to recognize the cultural contexts and individual motivations behind lying, can help us form a well-rounded judgement on the situation.

Seeking Professional Guidance:

  • Navigating the nuances of truth-telling and lying can be challenging
  • Psychological professionals can provide compassionate support and expert guidance
    • An Elegant Mind Counselling offers a free consultation to help individuals:
      • Navigate the complexities of human relationships
      • Cultivate healthier, more fulfilling connections

Embark on a journey towards greater self-awareness and understanding

Book a free consultation today and embark on a journey towards greater self-awareness, understanding, and relational well-being.

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