We all fib every now and then. But sometimes little white lies can turn into bigger deceptions. Here’s how to stop lying becoming a habit…
You’ve spent £100 on clothes, but you tell your partner it was only £50. It’s a harmless lie. Isn’t it?
Your son comes home from school saying the other kids told him Santa doesn’t exist.
Do you fess up?
We are taught from a young age that lying is morally wrong. Fairy tales tell us those who lie come a cropper and being honest is best.
Yet many of us will admit we’ve lied now and then, whether it’s downplaying how much we’ve spent or telling a friend her dress looks great when it doesn’t, in order to protect her feelings.
But a study done by University College London found that telling small lies causes changes in the brain that make it easier to tell bigger and bigger lies.
The study found that small acts of dishonesty ‘snowballed’ over time as the person adapts to become almost immune to lying.
So why do we do it at all? And when can lying be considered a problem?
Chartered psychologist Dr Hugh Koch says that lying is not an in-built human behaviour, but a learnt habit — and we start when we’re young.
He says: ‘Very young children are actually not “lying” when they tell an untruth — they often aren’t able to distinguish between fantasy and reality. A child might exaggerate something that’s happened, such as scraping their knee, but they then gradually learn to differentiate between what’s real and what’s not real.’
Dr Koch suggests it’s at this point that adults should help children understand that outright lying is wrong.
He says: ‘Otherwise children might learn that they get sympathy or recognition from lying — or more importantly, they see their parents lying and learn that lying is OK.’
When lies are innocent
Many of us lie with good intentions. You can hardly criticise parents for making their children believe in Father Christmas.
Dr Koch says: ‘The fantasy of Santa creates excitement and pleasurable activities for the family. I can’t see anything harmful in that. Gradually, as the child grows, things are said and done that give the child the idea that this fantasy is not totally real.
‘But some research suggests that this is an important learning experience that you are offering children — giving them the chance to be more analytical in their thinking.’
He adds that there are other situations where lies can be acceptable.
‘Lying to preserve someone’s feelings, for example, can be OK,’ he says.
Dr Koch highlights the importance of recognising unhealthy lies.
‘Lying in a relationship is never a good thing,’ he explains. ‘Part of a stable relationship is establishing ground rules and being honest. If you’re lying about your spending or lying about seeing your ex, for example, it is not healthy.
‘Some research shows that people feel if they are the one lying to their partner, it’s not as bad as finding out their partner has lied to them! This is an unfair paradox. You should not lie to your partner if you don’t want them to lie to you.’
Dr Koch adds that in other situations most lies or exaggerations are told to build self-esteem, to gain an advantage at work or to gain sympathy from others, for example lying about how ill you feel or how bad your day was.
Dr Koch says: ‘This type of lying is “built on sand” and not very healthy in the long run.’
He adds that if lying becomes a habit it can be harmful.
‘Lying to an extreme degree is a pretty antisocial activity and can be a sign of dysfunctional behaviour,’ he says.
So what can you do if you find yourself — or someone else —lying more often than you’d like? Dr Koch says one thing to think about is the liar’s self-esteem.
‘Lying regularly or lying about big things can be a sign someone has low self-esteem or is seeking social acceptance or to look greater in some way,’ he says.
He stresses that parents should encourage truth-telling as early as possible in young children once they are able to understand what lying is.
‘Children will model themselves on what they see you do,’ he says. ‘So if you are lying and they see it gets you a social advantage, they will do the same.
‘It’s down to parents to encourage their children to see that the best thing is to tell the truth whenever possible.’
Edited by Julie Cook
Ways to stop lying
Ask yourself whether your lies will hurt or deceive someone badly — eg are you lying about spending family money or about seeing another person behind your partner’s back?
Realise that young children cannot differentiate between fantasy and reality, but encourage truth-telling as soon as they understand.
Understand that some lies are actually ‘good’ — such as the existence of Santa or the Tooth Fairy. Don’t agonise that your children will be distraught when they find out!
Be a good role model — don’t openly lie in front of your children or they’ll see lying as a positive thing.
Rethink your self-esteem — are you lying to get attention, sympathy or social acceptance? If so, work on feeling more positive about yourself and you will feel less inclined to lie.