A lie is a statement that is known or intended by its source to be misleading, inaccurate, or false. The practice of communicating lies is called lying, and a person who communicates a lie may be termed a liar. Lies may be employed to serve a variety of instrumental, interpersonal, or psychological functions for the individuals who use them. Generally, the term "lie" carries a negative connotation, and depending on the context a person who communicates a lie may be subject to social, legal, religious, or criminal sanctions. In certain situations, however, lying is permitted, expected, or even encouraged. Because believing and acting on false information can have serious consequences, scientists and others have attempted to develop reliable methods for distinguishing lies from true statements.
As defined by Sartre, "bad faith" is lying to oneself. Specifically, it is failing to acknowledge one's own ability to act and determine one's possibilities, falling back on the determinations of the various historical and current totalizations which have produced one as if they relieved one of one's freedom to do so.
A barefaced (or bald-faced) lie is one that is obviously a lie to those hearing it. The phrase comes from 17th-century British usage referring to those without facial hair as being seen as acting in an unconcealed or open way. A variation that has been in use almost as long is bold-faced lie, referring to a lie told with a straight and confident face (hence "bold-faced"), usually with the corresponding tone of voice and emphatic body language of one confidently speaking the truth. Bold-faced lie can also refer to misleading or inaccurate newspaper headlines, but this usage appears to be a more recent appropriation of the term.
A lie which attempts to trick the victim into believing something major which will likely be contradicted by some information the victim already possesses, or by their common sense. When the lie is of sufficient magnitude it may succeed, due to the victim's reluctance to believe that an untruth on such a grand scale would indeed be concocted.
To bluff is to pretend to have a capability or intention one does not actually possess. Bluffing is an act of deception that is rarely seen as immoral when it takes place in the context of a game, such as poker, where this kind of deception is consented to in advance by the players. For instance, a gambler who deceives other players into thinking he has different cards to those he really holds, or an athlete who hints he will move left and then dodges right is not considered to be lying (also known as a feint or juke). In these situations, deception is acceptable and is commonly expected as a tactic.
Bullshit does not necessarily have to be a complete fabrication. While a lie is related by a speaker who believes what is said is false, bullshit is offered by a speaker who does not care whether what is said is true because the speaker is more concerned with giving the hearer some impression. Thus bullshit may be either true or false, but demonstrates a lack of concern for the truth which is likely to lead to falsehoods.
A term coined by researchers in Cornell University's Social Media Lab that describes small/innate lies which are usually sent electronically, and are used to terminate conversations or to save face. For example, sending an SMS to someone reading "I have to go, the waiter is here", when you are not at a restaurant is an example of a butler lie. A closely related concept is the "polite lie" (described below).
One can state part of the truth out of context, knowing that without complete information, it gives a false impression. Likewise, one can actually state accurate facts, yet deceive with them. To say "Yeah, that's right, I ate all the white chocolate, by myself", using sarcasm, a form of assertion by ridiculing the fact(s) implying the liar believes it to be preposterous.
A cover-up may be used to deny, defend or obfuscate one's own (or one's allies or group's) errors, one's embarrassing actions or lifestyle, and/or one's lie(s) that they made previously. One may deny a lie made on a previous occasion, or one may alternatively claim that a previous lie was not as egregious as it actually was. For example, to claim that a premeditated lie was really "only" an emergency lie, or to claim that a self-serving lie was really "only" a white lie or noble lie. Not to be confused with confirmation bias in which the deceiver is deceiving themselves.
Defamation is the communication of a false statement that harms the reputation of an individual person, business, product, group, government, religion, or nation as well as other various kinds of defamation that retaliate against groundless criticism. See also slander and libel.
Avoiding the subject that the lie is about, not giving attention to the lie. When attention is given to the subject the lie is based around, deflectors ignore or refuse to respond. Skillful deflectors are passive-aggressive people, who when confronted with subject choose to ignore and not respond.
Dismissing feelings, perceptions, raw facts of a situation is a kind of lie that can do damage to a person just as much as any other lie. Many mental disorders are linked to dismissal lies because they are dismissing their reality. Psychologist R.D. Laing believes that this type of lie is common within families of schizophrenics. Many children start out with a clear sense of reality, but then slowly start to lose their grasp due to meticulous and methodical dismissal. While some may not realize that just dismissing something can be considered a lie, if you dismiss something too often you are trying to change reality into something it is not, causing your attention to be focused elsewhere and could be hurting others as much or more than a simple white lie.
Economy with the truth is popularly used as a euphemism for deceit, whether by volunteering false information (i.e., lying) or by deliberately holding back relevant facts. More literally, it describes a careful use of facts so as not to reveal too much information, as in "speaking carefully".
An exaggeration occurs when the most fundamental aspects of a statement are true, but only to a certain degree. It is also seen as "stretching the truth" or making something appear more powerful, meaningful, or real than it actually is. Saying that someone devoured most of something when they only ate half would be considered an exaggeration. An exaggeration might be easily found to be a hyperbole were a person's statement (i.e. in informal speech, such as "He did this like one million times already!") meant not to be understood literally.
A fabrication is a lie told when someone submits a statement as truth, without knowing for certain whether or not it actually is true. Although the statement may be possible or plausible, it is not based on fact. Rather, it is something made up, or it is a misrepresentation of the truth. Examples of fabrication: A person giving directions to a tourist when the person doesn't actually know the directions. Often propaganda is fabrication.
A fib is a lie told with no malicious intent and little consequence. Unlike a white lie, fibs rarely include those lies or omissions that are meant to do good.
Fraud refers to the act of inducing another person or people to believe a lie in order to secure material or financial gain for the liar. Depending on the context, fraud may subject the liar to civil or criminal penalties.
A half-truth is a deceptive statement that includes some element of truth. The statement might be partly true, the statement may be totally true but only part of the whole truth, or it may employ some deceptive element, such as improper punctuation, or double meaning, especially if the intent is to deceive, evade, blame or misrepresent the truth.
An honest lie (or confabulation) can be identified by verbal statements or actions that inaccurately describe history, background, and present situations. There is generally no intent to misinform and the individual is unaware that their information is false. Because of this, it is not technically a lie at all since by definition, there must be an intent to deceive for the statement to be considered a lie.
Jocose (cf. jocular) lies are lies meant in jest, intended to be understood as such by all present parties. Teasing and irony are examples. A more elaborate instance is seen in some storytelling traditions, where the storyteller's insistence that the story is the absolute truth, despite all evidence to the contrary (i.e., tall tale), is considered humorous. There is debate about whether these are "real" lies, and different philosophers hold different views. The Crick Crack Club in London arrange a yearly "Grand Lying Contest" with the winner being awarded the coveted "Hodja Cup" (named for the Mulla Nasreddin: "The truth is something I have never spoken."). The winner in 2010 was Hugh Lupton. In the USA, the Burlington Liars' Club awards an annual title to the "World Champion Liar".
A lie-to-children is a lie, often a platitude, which may use euphemism(s), which is told to make an adult subject acceptable to children. Common examples include "The stork brought you" (in reference to childbirth), the existence of Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy or the Easter Bunny, and also "They are only sleeping" to avoid talking about death.
Also known as a continuing misrepresentation, a lie by omission occurs when an important fact is left out in order to foster a misconception. Lying by omission includes failures to correct pre-existing misconceptions. For example, when the seller of a car declares it has been serviced regularly but does not tell that a fault was reported at the last service, the seller lies by omission. It can be compared to dissimulation.
The seller of a product or service may advertise untrue facts about the product or service in order to gain sales, especially by competitive advantage. Many countries and states have enacted consumer protection laws intended to combat such fraud. An example is the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act that holds a seller liable for omission of any material fact that the buyer relies upon.
Minimization is the opposite of exaggeration. It is a type of deception involving denial coupled with rationalization in situations where complete denial is implausible.
A misleading statement is one where there is no outright lie, but still retains the purpose of getting someone to believe in an untruth. "Dissembling" likewise describes the presentation of facts in a way that is literally true, but intentionally misleading.
A noble lie is one that would normally cause discord if uncovered, but offers some benefit to the liar and assists in an orderly society, therefore, potentially beneficial to others. It is often told to maintain law, order and safety.
An omission is when a person tells most of the truth, but leaves out a few key facts that therefore completely change the story.
In psychiatry, pathological lying (also called compulsive lying, pseudologia fantastica and mythomania) is a behavior of habitual or compulsive lying. It was first described in the medical literature in 1891 by Anton Delbrueck. Although it is a controversial topic, pathological lying has been defined as "falsification entirely disproportionate to any discernible end in view, may be extensive and very complicated, and may manifest over a period of years or even a lifetime". The individual may be aware they are lying, or may believe they are telling the truth, being unaware that they are relating fantasies.
Perjury is the act of lying or making verifiably false statements on a material matter under oath or affirmation in a court of law, or in any of various sworn statements in writing. Perjury is a crime, because the witness has sworn to tell the truth and, for the credibility of the court to remain intact, witness testimony must be relied on as truthful.
A polite lie is a lie that a politeness standard requires, and which is usually known to be untrue by both parties. Whether such lies are acceptable is heavily dependent on culture. A common polite lie in international etiquette is to decline invitations because of "scheduling difficulties".
Puffery is an exaggerated claim typically found in advertising and publicity announcements, such as "the highest quality at the lowest price", or "always votes in the best interest of all the people". Such statements are unlikely to be true – but cannot be proven false and so do not violate trade laws, especially as the consumer is expected to be able to tell that it is not the absolute truth.
The phrase "speaking with a forked tongue" means to deliberately say one thing and mean another or, to be hypocritical, or act in a duplicitous manner. In the longstanding tradition of many Native American tribes, "speaking with a forked tongue" has meant lying, and a person was no longer considered worthy of trust, once he had been shown to "speak with a forked tongue". This phrase was also adopted by Americans around the time of the Revolution, and may be found in abundant references from the early 19th century – often reporting on American officers who sought to convince the tribal leaders with whom they negotiated that they "spoke with a straight and not with a forked tongue" (as for example, President Andrew Jackson told the Creek Nation in 1829). According to one 1859 account, the native proverb that the "white man spoke with a forked tongue" originated as a result of the French tactic of the 1690s, in their war with the Iroquois, of inviting their enemies to attend a Peace Conference, only to be slaughtered or captured.
A weasel word is an informal term for words and phrases aimed at creating an impression that a specific and/or meaningful statement has been made, when in fact only a vague or ambiguous claim has been communicated, enabling the specific meaning to be denied if the statement is challenged. A more formal term is equivocation.
White lies are minor lies which could be considered to be harmless, or even beneficial, in the long term. White lies are also considered to be used for greater good. White lies are often used to shield someone from a hurtful or emotionally damaging truth, especially when not knowing the truth is completely harmless.
Once a lie has been told, there can be two alternative consequences: it may be discovered or remain undiscovered.
Under some circumstances, discovery of a lie may discredit other statements by the same speaker and can lead to social or legal sanctions against the speaker, such as ostracizing or conviction for perjury. When a lie is discovered, the state of mind and behavior of the lie teller (liar) is no longer predictable.
The discoverer of a lie may also be convinced or coerced to collaborate with the liar, becoming part of a conspiracy. They may actively propagate the lie to other parties, actively prevent the lie's discovery by other parties, or simply omit publicizing the lie (a secondary lie of omission).
Some people may be better "lie detectors" than others, better able to distinguish a lie by facial expression, cadence of speech, certain movements, consistency, and other methods. According to David J. Lieberman, PhD, in Never Be Lied to Again: How to Get the Truth in Five Minutes or Less in Any Conversation or Situation, these methods can be learned. Some methods of questioning may be more likely to elicit the truth, for instance: "When was the last time you smoked marijuana?" (a leading question) is more likely to get a truthful answer than "Do you smoke pot?" Asking the question most likely to get the information you want is a skill and can be learned. Avoiding vague questioning will help avoid lies of omission or vagueness.
The question of whether lies can reliably be detected through nonverbal means is a subject of some controversy.
Dr. Paul Ekman and Dr. Maureen O'Sullivan spent several decades studying people's ability to spot deception in a study called the Wizards Project. They studied police officers, psychologists, judges, lawyers, the CIA, FBI and the Secret Service. After studying nearly 20,000 people, they identified just over 50 people who can spot deception with great accuracy.
Dr. Freitas-Magalhaes developed the ForensicPsy and the Psy7Faces to read lies by facial expressions.
Aristotle believed no general rule on lying was possible, because anybody who advocated lying could never be believed, he said. The philosophers St. Augustine, as well as St. Thomas Aquinas and Immanuel Kant, condemned all lying. However, Thomas Aquinas also had an argument for lying. According to all three, there are no circumstances in which one may ethically lie. Even if the only way to protect oneself is to lie, it is never ethically permissible to lie even in the face of murder, torture, or any other hardship. Each of these philosophers gave several arguments against lying, all compatible with each other. Among the more important arguments are:
Meanwhile, Utilitarian philosophers have supported lies which achieve good outcomes – white lies. In his 2008 book How to Make Good Decisions and Be Right All the Time, Iain King suggested a credible rule on lying was possible, and defined it as: "Deceive only if you can change behaviour in a way worth more than the trust you would lose, were the deception discovered (whether the deception actually is exposed or not)."
In Human, All Too Human, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche suggested that those who refrain from lying may do so only because of the difficulty involved in maintaining the lie. This is consistent with his general philosophy that divides (or ranks) people according to strength and ability; thus, some people tell the truth only out of weakness.
The capacity to lie has also been claimed to be possessed by non-humans in language studies with great apes. In one instance, gorilla Koko, when asked who tore a sink from the wall, pointed to one of her handlers and then laughed. Deceptive body language, such as feints that mislead as to the intended direction of attack or flight, is observed in many species including wolves. A mother bird deceives when it pretends to have a broken wing to divert the attention of a perceived predator – including unwitting humans – from the eggs in its nest to itself, most notably the killdeer.
The cliché "All is fair in love and war" finds justification for lies used to gain advantage in these situations. Sun Tzu declared that "All warfare is based on deception." Machiavelli advised in The Prince "never to attempt to win by force what can be won by deception", and Thomas Hobbes wrote in Leviathan: "In war, force and fraud are the two cardinal virtues."
Sir Walter Scott's famous couplet "Oh, what a tangled web we weave / When first we practise to deceive!" describes the often difficult procedure of covering up a lie so that it is not detected in the future.
In any scenario where statements are assumed to be either true or false, a person whom we know is consistently lying would paradoxically be a source of truth, by taking the opposite of whatever they say. There are many such paradoxes, the most famous 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, in a group of people, is lying and who is telling the truth.
The capacity to lie is noted early and nearly universally in human development. Social psychology and developmental psychology are 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, what is known as Machiavellian intelligence, is at the 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 why others do not see the same view of events that they do – and seem to assume that there is only one point of view, which is their own. The evolutionary theory proposed by Darwin states that only the fittest will survive and by lying, we aim to improve other’s perception of our social image and status, capability, and desirability in general. Studies have shown that humans begin lying at a mere age of 6 months, through crying and laughing, to gain attention. Scientific studies have also shown the presence of gender differences in lying. Although men and women lie at equal frequencies, men are more likely to lie in order to please themselves while women are more likely to lie to please others. We are individuals living in a world of competition and strict social norms, where we are able to use lies and deception to enhance our chances of survival and reproduction. Stereotypically speaking, men like to exaggerate about their sexual expertise but shy away from topics that degrade them while women understate their sexual expertise to make themselves more respectable and loyal in the eyes of men and avoid being labelled as a ‘scarlet woman’.
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 outrageous and unbelievable lies, 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, they lack the moral understanding of when to refrain from doing it. This takes years of watching people tell lies, and the results of these 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 in early adulthood.
Those with Parkinson's disease show difficulties in deceiving others, difficulties that link to prefrontal hypometabolism. This suggests a link between the capacity for dishonesty and integrity of prefrontal functioning. Pseudologia fantastica is a term applied by psychiatrists to the behavior of habitual or compulsive lying. Mythomania is the condition where there is an excessive or abnormal propensity for lying and exaggerating. A recent study found that lying takes longer than telling the truth. Or, as Chief Joseph succinctly put it, "It does not require many words to speak the truth."
It is alleged that some belief systems may find lying to be justified. Leo Tolstoy is cited as describing religious institutions as "the product of deception [and] lies for a good purpose".
Augustine of Hippo wrote two books about lying: On Lying (De Mendacio) and Against Lying (Contra Mendacio). He describes each book in his later work, Retractions. Based on the location of De Mendacio in Retractions, it appears to have been written about 395 AD. The first work, On Lying, begins: "Magna quæstio est de Mendacio" ("There is a great question about Lying"). From his text, it can be derived that St. Augustine divided lies into eight categories, listed in order of descending severity:
Despite distinguishing between lies according to their external severity, Augustine maintains in both treatises that all lies, defined precisely as the external communication of what one does not hold to be internally true, are categorically sinful and therefore ethically impermissible.
Augustine wrote that lies told in jest, or by someone who believes or opines the lie to be true are not, in fact, lies.
The Old Testament and New Testament of the Bible both contain statements that God cannot lie and that lying is immoral (Num. 23:19, Hab. 2:3, Heb. 6:13–18). Nevertheless, there are examples of God deliberately causing enemies to become disorientated and confused, in order to provide victory (2 Thess. 2:11; 1 Kings 22:23; Ezek. 14:9);
Various passages of the Bible feature exchanges that assert lying is immoral and wrong (Prov. 6:16–19; Ps. 5:6), (Lev. 19:11; Prov. 14:5; Prov. 30:6; Zeph. 3:13), (Isa. 28:15; Dan. 11:27), most famously, in the Ten Commandments: "Thou shalt not bear false witness" (Ex. 20:2–17; Deut. 5:6–21); Ex. 23:1; Matt. 19:18; Mark 10:19; Luke 18:20 a specific reference to perjury.
Other passages feature descriptive (not prescriptive) exchanges where lying was committed in extreme circumstances involving life and death. However, most Christian philosophers would argue that lying is never acceptable, but that even those who are righteous in God's eyes sin sometimes. Old Testament accounts of lying include:
In the New Testament, Jesus refers to the Devil as the father of lies (John 8:44) and Paul commands Christians "Do not lie to one another" (Col. 3:9; cf. Lev. 19:11).
In Gestaþáttr, one of the sections within the Eddaic poem Hávamál, Odin states that it is advisable, when dealing with "a false foe who lies", to tell lies oneself.
Zoroaster teaches that there are two powers in the universe; Asha, which is truth, order and that which is real, and Druj, which is "the Lie". Later on the Lie became personified as Angra Mainyu, a figure similar to the Christian Devil, who was portrayed as the eternal opponent of Ahura Mazda (God).
Herodotus, in his mid-5th century BC account of Persian residents of the Pontus, reports that Persian youths, from their fifth year to their twentieth year, were instructed in three things – "to ride a horse, to draw a bow, and to speak the Truth". He further notes that: "The most disgraceful thing in the world [the Persians] think, is to tell a lie; the next worst, to owe a debt: because, among other reasons, the debtor is obliged to tell lies."
In Achaemenid Persia, the lie, drauga (in Avestan: druj), is considered to be a cardinal sin, and it was punishable by death in some extreme cases. Tablets discovered by archaeologists in the 1930s at the site of Persepolis give us adequate evidence about the love and veneration for the culture of truth during the Achaemenian period. These tablets contain the names of ordinary Persians, mainly traders and warehouse-keepers. According to Professor Stanley Insler of Yale University, as many as 72 names of officials and petty clerks found on these tablets contain the word truth. Thus, says Insler, we have Artapana, protector of truth, Artakama, lover of truth, Artamanah, truth-minded, Artafarnah, possessing splendour of truth, Artazusta, delighting in truth, Artastuna, pillar of truth, Artafrida, prospering the truth and Artahunara, having nobility of truth. It was Darius the Great who laid down the "ordinance of good regulations" during his reign. Darius' testimony about his constant battle against the Lie is found in the Behistun Inscription. He testifies: "I was not a lie-follower, I was not a doer of wrong ... According to righteousness I conducted myself. Neither to the weak or to the powerful did I do wrong. The man who cooperated with my house, him I rewarded well; who so did injury, him I punished well."
He asks Ahuramazda, the God, to protect the country from "a (hostile) army, from famine, from the Lie".
Darius had his hands full dealing with large-scale rebellion which broke out throughout the empire. After fighting successfully with nine traitors in a year, Darius records his battles against them for posterity and tells us how it was the lie that made them rebel against the empire. At the Behistun inscription, Darius says:
Then advice to his son Xerxes, who is to succeed him as the great king:
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