The truth about lying

Exploring the reasons behind lying and how it changes with age

The truth about lying

Claire Wen and Claire Chang


e had two options: do his homework or watch TV. He hesitated for a bit, thinking that being productive would be the right thing to do — but then again, there was only one assignment left. He turned on the TV.

A little while later, his mom came in, asking if he’d finished his homework. Yes, he lied. As a third grader at the time, he’d tried to avoid lying when he could. Now a junior, Ronith Kalidindi still distinctly remembers this experience from his childhood.

“I feel like it kind of did impact me because before then, I’d never lied to my parents about anything related to academic stuff,” Kalidindi said. “I feel like that definitely affected how I like to go about doing homework now, [which] leads to procrastination. So I guess that lying kind of led to the procrastination issues and stuff that I deal with today.”

According to National Geographic, the average 13 to 17-year-old tells approximately three lies per day. The reasons people lie vary, but professor and Canada Research Chair Tier One Kang Lee describes the two main types as self, for self-protection or self-gain, and social, as in white lies to spare someone else’s feelings. 

“When you tell white lies to people around you, they feel good,” Lee wrote in an email. “That is why your people often tell [you] how great your artwork is. We tell white lies all the time because they are prosocial lies that we can justify. We are nice people and want to make others feel good. [But] telling big lies is uncommon in our everyday life.”

Junior Fatima Ahmed agrees with Lee that white lies can be used in a prosocial way, or in a way that promotes social acceptance.  

“Small lies are fine,” Ahmed said. “If you [are] sparing someone’s feelings or you’re trying to keep yourself in a good position or whatever. But big lies, you should just own up to it.” 

According to Lee, white lies are fairly common. However, there are few differences between white lies and larger lies, aside from their potential impact. 

For both types of lying, the person has to figure out what the other person knows and what is true, a process called theory of mind. The next process is executive functioning and counterfactual reasoning, where the person inhibits the truth and comes up with an alternative. The person then needs to mobilize their whole body for convincing speech: body language, eye gaze and facial expression.

“There is no major difference between [how convincing] children and adults [are],” Lee said. “There are kids who are good liars and there are adults who are bad liars.”

However, while there may be no difference between a child’s and an adult’s ability to lie, when a child first learns to lie, the impact it has may be a turning point and a crucial memory for them. 

In Kalidindi’s case, his experience of lying as a child is ingrained in his memory because of his association between emotion and memory, according to Dr. Patti Simone, the Director of Neuroscience at Santa Clara University. In an email, Simone said that when people lie, their sympathetic nervous system is aroused and releases the hormone and neurotransmitter epinephrine. This chemical, also known as adrenaline, helps lay down the memory of the incident. 

Senior Ananya Krishnapura believes that since the first significant time someone lies, a person’s relationship with lying evolves. She feels that there are differences between how children and adults perceive lying, and that as a child, it’s very black and white: lying is bad. But, as she’s grown older, she’s realized lying isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

“There’s a gray area,” Krishnapura said. “So when you start encountering white lies, you start to see the gray line. You start to see when lying might not be as bad as you thought or times when you don’t see direct consequence, which is where I feel like we can fall into a dangerous situation as we grow older.” 

Krishnapura’s view of a changing relationship with lying is shared by Ahmed, who acknowledges that when she first started lying as a child, she felt guilty about it being a conscious decision, but now, she doesn’t feel as bad. She finds herself lying about what she was doing to her friends if she was watching Netflix and procrastinating — she considers that normal now.

While Ahmed and Krishnapura believe that their relationship with lying has changed as they’ve aged, lying, according to a survey of 195 MVHS students, has become a daily occurrence for most teenagers, with 52 percent  lying at least once a day, whether it be saying someone looks nice or telling their parents they’re doing homework. Krishnapura maintains that this isn’t a wholly negative statistic.

“I think lying helps you form opinions,” Krishnapura said. “Because when you’re little and have opinions, you don’t necessarily get to express it in the same way, whereas lying is one of those steps where you form your opinion at the same time you form your ability to express it.”