Social Question

Jeruba's avatar

Does lying come naturally?

Asked by Jeruba (55824points) July 15th, 2010

I don’t want to thrash the argument of whether “everybody” lies or not (if anyone doesn’t, not everybody does). What I’m wondering is which is the learned behavior, lying or telling the truth.

I know truth-telling can be taught and lying can be taught. And both can be modeled. But which is natural?

In primitive societies, do people grow up just naturally telling the truth because it would not occur to them to do otherwise, or does deceitful behavior appear virtually as soon as a child can speak?

Is there an important line between imaginative play and lying? between storytelling and lying? between religion/myth and lying?

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57 Answers

Pandora's avatar

I use to take care of toddlers. Its a little bit of both. Children often tell the truth but sometimes they live in a fantasy world and can embellish. Its not till they are older do they really know the difference and do it willfully.
Then they learn to lie because of they don’t want to get in trouble.

marinelife's avatar

I think truth telling and lying are both innate to human beings.

There is clearly a line between imaginative play and lying. It is all about our capacity for fantasy.

Also storytelling, which is an art the evolved from oral history.

Also, religion, which most of the believers actually believe to be truth. Myth was also based on belief and explanations for the world around man and man’s origins.

Dutchess_III's avatar

I think it’s probably innate. Kids learn to lie pretty quickly to get out of trouble! But then it’s up to the parents to instill in them that it’s wrong. I remember lying to my mom once, when I was seven. She asked if I had left the gardening shears out in the yard. I said “No.” She just said, “Ok.” About ten seconds later I burst into tears because I had lied!!! I sobbingly confessed…..

Jeruba's avatar

So—they learn to lie because of fear? What if they are not afraid?

I’m hoping there’s an anthropology student in our midst who has some knowledge of behavior in societies that don’t necessarily subscribe to the systems of morals and ethics that are familiar to us and maybe don’t handle punishment in ways that train children to fear.

ANef_is_Enuf's avatar

I really suspect it’s at least partly learned. I know that the sister closest to me in age does not like to lie. I also very rarely lie… and when I do it’s pitiful. I feel like I never “learned” to lie well. In any case, now I just avoid it entirely because I am so bad at it.

I was always able to be open and honest with my parents if I had done something wrong. As I got older, my parents started to crack down a bit more.. and now my youngest sister is more prone to lying.

That’s just my personal experience, but, it seems to make sense.

Dutchess_III's avatar

Well, I wasn’t all that fearful, I just didn’t like getting in trouble, no matter how mild it was.

Dr_Lawrence's avatar

Truth-telling and lying are both learned as children learn to speak.

Children observe the benefits other’s get from being evasive, telling only the truth, sanitizing the truth and plain ordinary lying. They try them out and both learn not to do it, learn how to not get caught doing it and learn how to do it so well that others accept what they say as truth.

Children can tell when what is said does not match what they saw. They recognize distinctive behaviours associated with lying like amateur CSIs or detectives. They practice.

chyna's avatar

I’m not sure when fantasy becomes lies to a child. I have a niece that told stories as young as 3 years old and grew up to be the most outrageous liar ever. She had no reason to lie as a child as her parents never really punished her, so I assume she started telling stories as a means to get attention. Now, in her late 20’s, she will look anyone in the eye and lie as effortlessly as if she were telling the truth and it’s usually about something that doesn’t even matter.

Dutchess_III's avatar

@chyna That is absolutely disgusting. Does she not realize that everyone is on to her?

tinyfaery's avatar

I’m going to go with yes. I’ve been around too many children to think otherwise.

chyna's avatar

@Dutchess I swear I think she believes her own lies. I can’t stand to be around her.
She walked into her sister’s baby shower and announced she couldn’t stay, she had an appointment to get an abortion. In front of at least 50 people. Just one of many examples.
No, she wasn’t even pregnant.

Blackberry's avatar

It seems because of toddlers, lying is natural lol. Anything to not get confronted or yelled at or scolded. Why do you think we have white lies? Why should I spend the whole day apologizing for calling a girls butt big when I can just say it’s not big? Everyone wins. And then there are the people that want to be lied to.

Dutchess_III's avatar

@chyna It simply floors me that people can’t see themselves….she sounds like she has some serious issues, though.

AmWiser's avatar

Just from what I have experienced I think lying comes naturally to children. Its like when they come to terms with ’hey, I have a mind and I can think. And I think I should say this instead of that if I don’t want to get in trouble.

This makes me wonder what my first lie was??? tehehe!

josie's avatar

Human beings are rational creatures, with abstract consciousness. As such, the truth has a sacred element about it. If we constantly engage in fantasy, either in what we think or what we say, then we put ourselves at mortal risk, because we begin to forget what is real, and what is not, what is dangerous, what is not etc. And without the discrimination that truth brings, we are at hazard to blunder into danger.
Thus it is “natural” to be truthful, because it is helpful to survival. Lying begins to cloud the conciousness into a form of subjective self deception, which is dangerous. Lying thus would be considered anti survival behaviour and thus undesirable and something which would come less “naturally”.

mrentropy's avatar

I mean, yes. Even gorillas and… I forget if it’s apes or monkeys or both, they do it, too.

escapedone7's avatar

What a coincidence!! I was just talking to my friend about this on the phone. She is a nanny and having problems with a 6 year old that started to lie. I have worked with children for a long time and I noticed they tend to go through these phases somewhere between 4 and 7 where they exercise their tongues and their imaginations a little bit! My friend and I both agreed that for children under 7 who may not have reached the stage of concrete reasoning (Piaget) to treat these as “teachable moments” at least in the beginning, since often it is not done with malice. It is more like they are “telling stories” than trying to cause trouble. Older children though, tend to do it with a purpose in mind (for instance to blame the broken window on someone else).

I was just thinking about how much we lie to the children. During their very early stages it is hard for them to know what is real and what is not. Their whole reality is full of muppets and puppets, cartoons and stories. Santa Claus is not real, bunnies do not lay colorful eggs, and dinosaurs are extinct (sorry Barney.) We indulge them with so much embellishment it is no wonder we get some back!

escapedone7's avatar

It is strange because I am religious but I am not an absolute moralist. I do not think lying is always the unforgivable insult, if done for good reason. People lied to hide runaway slaves, was that bad? If a child lied when asked about his father because he was ashamed of not having one, would that be so evil? I think if it is done to protect another from harm or safeguard someone elses privacy about a delicate matter, a little lie isn’t a terrible thing.

Cruiser's avatar

The law of consequences teaches us at a very early age to do things a certain way or suffer pain, agony, deprivation, or happiness and satisfaction etc. Touch that burning log and ow that hurts. Kill that animal or starve. Taste that honey and yum! Forget your coat you are cold…etc.

We then quickly learn to lie in order to avoid unpleasant outcomes as well. Telling the truth at all times or be struck down by higher consequences is also taught and learned again to avoid even more unpleasant consequences and or enjoy some pleasant reward for our good expected telling of the truth. So IMO, lying and telling the truth is something that is truly learned.

Neizvestnaya's avatar

Yes in that it’s by trial and error which are heavily influenced by particular conditions that determine which a person is going to hone their skills in to a greater degree.

If you come from an atypical family background and have few resources then you might find lying will get you secure and set up faster with strangers than telling the truth about your circumstances. We all want to believe telling the truth is the most efficient and positive yield but…

aprilsimnel's avatar

Sure. If it’s human, it comes naturally.

“You cannot go against nature,
because if you do
go against nature,
it’s part of nature, too.”

~No New Tale to Tell, Love and Rockets

Blondesjon's avatar

Sure it does. Yeah. That’s the ticket.

tranquilsea's avatar

I don’t know that lying comes naturally. I’ve never been terribly good at it. In fact my sister can lie better than I can tell the truth. It is definitely something learned.

My daughter started telling tall tales when she was 6. I spoke to her time and time again about the difference between telling a story and telling a story and passing it off for truth. Things got worse before they got better. She got caught in most of the lies she told. As she got older and showed no signed of slowing down I step up my campaign to let her know what kind of consequences would be in store for her. I was extremely worried as her lies were so good that people believed her hook, line and sinker.

She finally got it about a year ago and has stopped the pathological lying. I know she was doing it because she viewed her life as boring and wanted to spice it up a bit. She was not allowing her brilliant personality to come through.

stardust's avatar

Firstly, I think this is a great question.
I’d be inclined to think that it’s a learned behaviour, as is truth-telling.

Berserker's avatar

I think that the ability to lie is instinctive, but I don’t think that we always lied. I believe that most forms of lying spawn from fear, and fear is a natural human emotion, for lack of better word. So while we may not have been born with the known concept of lying, through evolving societies, it might as well be natural, since it seems that so many vital aspects of being human revolve around deception and superficiality.
I guess that doesn’t really answer anything…we learn to learn how to lie, through fear, circumstances and reasoning; as in, if I say that this will happen, but if I say this, something else will happen.

Coloma's avatar

I agree with all the sharings, but..I also think some people are also just intrinsically more honest than others.

I am incapable of lying to any degree that would cause harm to another, most of all myself.

I can ‘honestly’ say that the sum total of my lying has been relegated to an occasional off day and calling in work as ‘sick’, the same when my daughter was small and I wanted to keep her home once in awhile when she was overly tired or stressed and, of course, telling the school she was ‘sick.’

I did ‘fudge’ on a phone bill ONCE when I was married to avoid my ex’s disapproval, but..I am the type that couldn’t live with myself if I had reason to tell a life altering lie to another.

I do not and never will understand those that can lie without conscious.

IF I told a big lie I would HAVE to confess within about 24 hours tops, I wouldn’t be able to stand it.

I detest liars, feeling that the worst thing about a lie is the fact that it robs an unsuspecting party from their right to choose based on the facts.

Honesty comes very naturally for me and for that I am grateful.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

I think our society is pretty primitive, to be honest. Just like any other. Lying is rampant because people are self-centered.

Russell_D_SpacePoet's avatar

I think lying is kind of a survival instinct of sorts. Or at least related. The condition of our society just brings it out.

ratboy's avatar

Lying is a recent phenomenon, as is detailed in the documentary The Invention of Lying. In truth, I’m lying just now.

MissA's avatar

First do no harm. If I had official commandments, this would be the first.

Sandydog's avatar

I remember when I was involved in the church hearing a report from missioneries about a tribe in Papua New Guinea who when the bible was translated for them thought that Judas was the character most to be admired -because lying and deceit were traits that they respected most.
I think someone made a film about them as well

Jeruba's avatar

I’m interested in all these responses. Thank you.

From the perspective of our familiar world and the societies represented here, falsehood and deception seem as common as pavement. Yet I am still bemused and wondering. I remember reading a story long ago about some missionaries (I think they were missionaries) who were planning to visit a remote area far in the interior of a largely unexplored continent, where there were known to be cannibal tribes. The missionaries thought they would pave the way for their arrival by making their faces known to the people, so they air-dropped some gifts and supplies along with printed leaflets containing their photographs. The idea was that the tribespeople would associate their faces with the gifts, regard them as beneficent, and welcome them.

However, these people were primitive and unused to any of the conventions of what we call civilization. They had never seen photographs before, and they literally could not interpret what they were looking at. They saw abstract shapes and did not recognize them as faces. So when the missionaries arrived, they ate ‘em anyway.

Now, this story may or may not be literally true, but it does point to the fact that people who are not exposed to things we take for granted simply may not see what we see. Why would it necessarily occur to someone who sees that X is so to say instead that X is not so? What would put it into a person’s head to falsely report an experience or deny seeing what he has seen or otherwise use speech to utter something contradictory to his own knowledge? It’s one thing to harbor an unsupported belief or describe a dream or fantasy and quite another to knowingly and deliberately misrepresent understood reality.

So I am still entertaining the hypothesis that lying, like pavement, is an artifact of civilization and does not necessarily come naturally.

On the subject of what comes naturally, @aprilsimnel, I do have to differ with your generalization. Certainly anything a human being does is by definition within the capacity of human beings. But it does not all come naturally. Try a yoga class if you want to see what I mean.

Russell_D_SpacePoet's avatar

@Dutchess_III Hi ya back! Imagine meeting you here. :)

Nullo's avatar

I would think so.

Cruiser's avatar

Yes. The only reason to lie is to survive…survive getting caught doing something you should not have done and ultimately survive a life and death situation. Take the recent tragic mass shooting in Oregon. The shooter asked his victims are you Christian. If they answered yes….they were shot in the head. If they said no…they were shot in the legs. Great time to tell a fib.

crazyandbeautiful's avatar

I say yes. But when I answer someone I am upfront with them. I sometimes tell half truth and half lie. So that way it’s not really that bad. Does it make me a bad person? No. I think it depends on the subject of the question.

If you are answering just to make yourself sound like some great person, you would probably lie your ass off.

That’s my opinion and I’m sticking to it.

Hypocrisy_Central's avatar

^^ The shooter asked his victims are you Christian. If they answered yes….they were shot in the head. If they said no…they were shot in the legs. Great time to tell a fib.
Actually it was the most terrible time to tell a fib.

crazyandbeautiful's avatar

In last weeks shooting…yes I would of said no to save my life. But I would know the truth knowing I know my true religion. I guess those people chose to tell the truth knowing they would die nonetheless.

There is definitely a place in heaven for all those that died last week. God is with their families.

Just know I will lie/tell you the truth 50/50 in my answer to let you know you should think it out or do what you want to do. I’m that damn voice in your head

Coloma's avatar

I wonder what would have happened if someone said they were an atheist?
I would have, because I am, and that would have been an honest answer.
Maybe dodged a bullet or been shot in the toe instead of the leg? haha
Lying is only acceptable when needing to protect oneself or others is at stake, otherwise, nobody likes a liar.

crazyandbeautiful's avatar

My dad taught me at a young age to lie to my mom to “get out of sticky situations.” He now tells me stories that I know I was there for but will say you were never there. I say sure I was.

Either his memory is shot or he makes stuff up to sound good. I talk to the people that were there and they look at me like I have 3 heads.

Cruiser's avatar

@Hypocrisy_Central How on earth can you say “Actually it was the most terrible time to tell a fib.” Please explain your train of thought here!

Hypocrisy_Central's avatar

@Cruiser How on earth can you say “Actually it was the most terrible time to tell a fib.” Please explain your train of thought here!
OK, not that you (or anyone else, less a few) would agree, here is how I extrapolated my comment.
• If one is going to claim the generic moniker of Christian, they should actually be a Believer.
• If they are actual Believers, then they believe there is an afterlife and what the Bible says about it.
• If they believe what the Bible says then they would not lie to save them because they know where their eternity is, furthermore, they would not deny Christ to save their life here which is perishing anyhow; if one denies Christ before man, He will deny them before the Father.
So, for those who truly believe, it would be the absolute worse time to lie, and the reason behind it as well. They should not be afraid to give up this janky life because their last breath here, is their beginning time there in Paradise; nothing to fear.

Berserker's avatar

But wut if you wrong, brudda.

Hypocrisy_Central's avatar

But wut if you wrong, brudda.
(If that was in reference to me) Wrong in what way?

Berserker's avatar

What if there is no god and you died for nothing? Of course, God or not, we all die some day, so in the grand scheme of things, I suppose it doesn’t really matter. :/

Hypocrisy_Central's avatar

^ What if there is no god and you died for nothing?
Then I would never know I was. If the moment I died I went to the great white zephrum or nothingness, I would never know it. It would be as if I was watching TV late night and fell asleep during the 1st half of act two. I only know I missed the movie or show when I wake up, if I never woke, I would never know I missed anything. What if I am right, what do you think it will be or what would happen after one dies here on Earth? Just for giggles, ask yourself that and tell me what you believe it will be like it will be like ah la “Ghost” and “Heaven can Wait” (just the fact you know you are dead, not that what happened in those fictional accounts of the moves would actually happen)?

Dutchess_III's avatar

@Hypocrisy_Central what if the gun was aimed at one of your 4 year old kids and the shooter said, “If you’ve raised this kid to be a Christian, I’m going to shoot her in the head. Did you raise her to be a Christian?”
Would you be so righteous then?

Hypocrisy_Central's avatar

^ ABSOLUTELY, I know where he/she is going. He isn’t so much punishing him/her as liberating him/her from this world of iniquity, before it has a chance to rob him/her of him/her soul. Would I miss him/her while because he/she has gone before me, certainly, it will make me even more careful to make my election sure so that I will be united with him/her when I breath my last here. If I would let a mere man determine my integrity then my God would be as powerless as that of other people and certainly would make those choosing not to believe, or put me in the same boat of those who do not choose to believe at all.

Dutchess_III's avatar

Oh sweet Jesus.

Dutchess_III's avatar

This Mother kills her 10 year old son to send him to heaven so he won’t have to suffer through the things on earth.

Hypocrisy_Central's avatar

@Dutchess_III Mother kills her 10 year old son to send him to heaven so he won’t have to suffer through the things on earth.
You linked that to what, try to portray that as the norm for true followers of Christ? That would be like me trying to portray Charles Manson as the norm for secular society. That incident has nothing remotely to do with the situation at the campus or the question you posed, an erroneous straw man no doubt.

Dutchess_III's avatar


Crazy woman: “Mother kills her 10 year old son to send him to heaven so he won’t have to suffer through the things on earth”.

Hypocrisy_Central :“He isn’t so much punishing him/her as liberating him/her from this world of iniquity, before it has a chance to rob him/her of him/her soul.

Two peas in a pod.

I used to be a follower of Christ, @Hypocrisy_Central, until quite recently, actually. The idiocy and hypocrisy just got to be too much.

Hypocrisy_Central's avatar

^ Two peas in a pod
Hardly, in the first incident some guy with malice in his heart sought to punish those who called themselves Christians, however, killing them did not do the evil to them he intended because of his ignorance he dispatched them a better place. In the second incident a woman out of ignorance felt she was sparing her son the evil in this world (which she may have actually did ion the wrong way), she did it to help, the gunman did it for harm; big difference.

Dutchess_III's avatar

End result is the same.

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