Divya Ranjan
16 min readJan 16, 2021


Lying, probably one of the most subtle yet intriguing things that we keep doing every now and then, whether to ourselves or to others. When was the last time you lied? Today? Do you remember it? It’s one of the things that isn’t really taught to us, rather most of the time we just somehow pick it up from the environment since we were a child. And later it doesn’t really get eradicated, rather gets much stronger as we encounter more with our environment. In this article, we try to answer the following question from various angles: “What does it actually mean to lie?”. And along with that we’d be fairly looking at “How we lie” , “Why we lie” and if there’s anything that should be done about it.


Lying is just one of the many ways in which humans can use their rationality for deception. Now deception and lying aren’t really interchangeable, but where there’s deception there’s always lying. Essentially, lying is a form of deception. Now if we go ahead and ask, what do we mean when we say “deception”, here we mean: willfully manipulating the structure of reality, and representing it as something in accordance with what you want the reality to be. Now one can already sense how the seeds of lying are sowed in here, but if we follow logically, deception is a more stronger and general form of lying, which needs a lie as one of it’s corner stones, but not being the only one. Rather, lying is just when words are your vehicle for deception.

Now that being said, it’s logically coherent to claim that the causes for doing acts of deceit would suffice to be the causes for why one lies. And for this, we go back to the origins of personality psychology and psychoanalysis and borrow one of the most agreed upon claims : Encountering reality in it’s bare form is one of the most terrifying existential experiences for human beings, both on a biological and psychological level . From this we can bring up Freud’s famous theory of repression, the Oedipus complex, Jung’s concept of Persona and Shadow or the modern Terror Management Theory. Not only that, but this is also one of the core tenets of Existentialism : The fabric of existence itself is woven with plenty of chaos, suffering, pain and terror in it. Now we ain’t gonna make the claim that psychoanalysis and existentialism agree entirely upon this, they don’t, existentialism’s claim of existence itself being chaotic is too radical for that of a psychoanalyst, they believe it’s in the psyche where all the problems reside in, inherently, and psychotherapy is the way with which you become conscious of those. Now what’s the most common thing between these two is that, they both take for granted that humans are inherently terrified of reality as it is, whether that’s because of their psyche being messed or existence itself being a mess, is a debate that we don’t want to indulge into, as of now. So, from now on, this is going to be our central axiom in any of the claims we’d be making here.


Now, we come back to deception and lying. Taken for granted that humans are inherently terrified of facing reality, we might try to think what happens when they face that terror, what happens when they encounter reality as it is, and get terrified ? There are various ways in which a human can react to this, but we’d be only concerned with the reaction that leads to deception. So when you’re terrified of reality, one of the two things you can do is : accept reality as it is or change reality to something that doesn’t terrify you or better, something that you are comfortable with having as your reality. The first route is almost always not taken by people, because it consists of facing the demons that they know are haunting them. And it’s actually the second route, that leads to what we call as deception. Here’s how it works : you’re existentially terrified of reality, and you want a reality that’s adaptable for you, so what you do is you try to act as if that’s not the reality which was terrifying you. You try all that you can as a human being, the best of which is to use it’s rational faculty, to construct and warp the structure of reality in a way that’s suitable for you, and making your speech and action in accordance with this. And thus you know exactly how far it is from reality, and still try to live (speak and act) in a way such that either(or both) you or someone else are convinced about this being the factual reality. And this is deception, of which lying is a subset.


Given below is a schematic diagram of the speech act perspective of lying (Ref No.4):

A schematic model of the speech act perspective of lying

And I quote the following from the same article :

“Lying from the perspective of “speech act” is governed by two components, namely : Intentionality Component & Conditionality Component. The former concerns various mental states (e.g., intentions, beliefs) involved in speech, while the latter concerns the social rules governing conversation (e.g., being polite when receiving a gift). To lie and do so successfully, individuals must represent and differentiate the mental states of themselves and the listener, and make appropriate statements to conceal the truth while instilling false beliefs into the mind of the listener (the intentionality component). Also, individuals must understand whether the specific social-cultural context in which they lie prohibits or permits lying (the conventionality component) “

“To make appropriate decisions about whether to tell a lie, the speaker must determine the social context in which the truth or a lie is called for, as well as the specific social rule that motivates it. Failure to discriminate appropriately may lead to negative consequences. To tell a lie and lie successfully, individuals must consider both components.”

Here we get to know what’s the entire psychological process behind lying, the different components of it, and how a successful liar would have to manage things. If we examine a bit further on this idea, we see that the Intentionality Component is the set of beliefs that the liar wants the subject(the person he’s lying to) to be convinced about the warped reality that he created, and he has to do that while maintaining the Conditionality component of his lie, where he has to make sure if his lie isn’t too evident under social norms or that his constructed reality is too far from being acceptable or too obvious to be recognized as fake. Having a right balance of these two components by the liar should successfully lead him to instill his desired beliefs into the mind of another person.


Above all don’t lie to yourself . The man who lies to himself and listens is own lie comes to a point that he can’t distinguish the truth within him or around him, and so loses all respect for himself & others.

Self-deception is when you lie to none other than yourself, and it certainly is the worst of lies. Think of your psyche as a meaning interpretation machine, which interprets everything that’s out there in reality. Now this machine isn’t really a hardwired one, it’s plastic and can change and grow as it learns new algorithms over time. A healthy machine like this is expected to have a certain set of axioms, a certain set of algorithms and using that it creates some certain results every time it interacts with something from the reality. Now, what lying does to this is constantly change all three of those things for different contexts, so that it can work just as you want it to represent the reality. And not long after that you realize the meaning interpreting machine doesn’t anymore have a coherent set of axioms and algorithms that produce a certain output. And that’s exactly why you shouldn’t lie, it pathologizes your psychological meaning structures, which help you orient yourself in life for better or worse. You sometimes use A set of axioms to get O as the output by running the axioms A through the algorithm M, and at other times you make it look like you’re using the same A (axioms) and M (algorithm) to get to another output, without being clear for what makes the change. And thus after long enough of such interactions, your meaning structure can never be trusted to do anything you want to do in your life, because you can’t even be sure of what it is that you want and why you want it, is it because you wanna impress that girl you met last night ? Or is it because you want to give the impression to your mom that you aren’t drunk when you are? It’s like the neural pattern you had associated with every goal and your emotion behind it, is blown up and you can’t figure out what you should do. And this is exactly what Dostoevsky described in the above quote from Brothers Karamazov.


One of the most interesting things about lies is that they’re like a virus that replicates itself in slow-motion. This is best known from the following quote by Mark Twain:

“If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything”

And this is unsurprisingly reasonable, let us continue with the same analogy as we previously did. We know that, saying the truth precisely means to try your best in bringing your speech and actions in accordance with what is real(for you). Now, what is real is not always evident right away to the subject, so we rather have the aim that we try to interpret reality the best we can, and we take the information as it is, without mixing in our own thoughts/beliefs etc. , that’s what it means to embody the truth. To have your description of reality as close to factual reality as you can, now if you do this, what do you think is there left for you to do other than just get information, interpret according to the axioms you had, and say the output ? You don’t have to remember what you said, why you said, and what was your interpretation at that moment. Because you can just look into what was out there, interpret again with your axioms, and give the output, and as your meaning systems aren’t pathologized, so they’re gonna give the same result as they did before. But if you were lying, you’d have to remember each step, each element, and each reason, because it’s something that you created, it wasn’t embedded in reality, and thus if you don’t remember each and everything of what you created, you’re gonna have a hard time getting the same output so that your lie doesn’t get revealed. And while it’s not the best argument one can give for not lying, as “I just can’t do so much of remembering” is as unreasonable of an argument as “I can’t use a gun to kill someone”. But this is one of the hallmarks of lies, which the liar is aware of all the time, kids find this early enough during their childhood. You say a lie, you expect it to turn it one way, and you prepare yourself to face that, but soon enough you realize there are 3–4 more ways that it turned out to be, which were unexpected and you didn’t prepare about, and this loop continues until you have a whole ton of lies emerging from a single (maybe) innocent white lie.


With all that which a person allows to appear, one may ask : what is it meant to hide ? What should it divert the eyes from….How far does he deceive himself in this action ? ~ Friedrich Nietzsche, The Dawn

One of the central tenets of Jungian Psychoanalysis is Jung’s formulation of Shadow(a part of the Unconscious) and Persona (a part of the Ego), where Jung goes on to claim that there’s a specific part of personal unconscious which stores everything that you wouldn’t like to appear as YOU. And the Persona is essentially the part of Ego which is visible to the outer world. It’s the mask you wear to keep your Shadow hidden. The process of constantly building a Persona which keeps your self-image as you want it to be, is where deception and lying get their roots from. The unwillingness to accept your Shadow and the temptation to have a Persona that makes you look in a certain way that is inspired from various sources, such as social conventions.

How do you take hold of that process and change it ? Here’s a Jungian dictum from his Alchemical Studies :

in sterquiliniis invenitur — in filth it shall be found

No one likes to encounter his/her Shadow, because that’s why it’s in there, one doesn’t “like” it to be included in one’s “self”. But to be an individual and to not let the unconscious drive you to do things means to encounter things that you severely hate/dislike in yourself and in others. This is known as the process of Shadow Integration in Jungian Psychoanalysis. And once you can encounter it and have courage to speak and act accordingly, which means to acknowledge what you know to be real(regardless of what it is) and represent it in the most applicable and coherent manner, you’d be speaking and acting in accordance with what’s real(for you) and not indulge into any kind of unconscious deception.


Consider yourself among a group of old friends meeting for the first time after last summer. Everyone’s having a good time and chatting about how amazing their summer vacations were and what places they visited. You couldn’t go out for anything like that, because of your financial conditions. Admittedly, you want to enjoy vacations just as they want to and you would have, if you had the money, but you just couldn’t. Now, when one of your friends asks you where did you spend the vacation, everyone else locks their eyes on to yours and are expecting what awesome thing you’re gonna say. You look down to the plate for a while and answer : “I didn’t really visit any fancy places, I actually don’t like travelling in the first place. I think it’s a pure waste of money and also there are far better things for me to do that I get real satisfaction from, rather than going to a place for a few weeks. “

We try to analyze this situation thoroughly. You know exactly how much you wanted to enjoy your vacations, and also you know exactly why you couldn’t. Here, you’re facing the same situation that we claimed in the beginning of this article as an axiom for deception. You couldn’t accept the fact that all of your friends travelled during the vacations and you didn’t. Moreover, you aren’t able to accept it in front of them, because that’d somehow make you the “poor one” among others. That’s a low-key psychological state of terror, you’re terrified to imagine being the only one who couldn’t enjoy vacations, you’re terrified to imagine yourself as poorer than others. And this is the root cause for your intention behind lying to them. The amazing fact is that, it happens in barely within a few seconds, so that you don’t even have time to think. It’s as if your primitive part of the brain sees this situation as a low-degree threat and just finds the easiest way it can at the moment to not face it, and lying is as instantaneous as anything.

So, if this is the way in which we pathologize our psyche then what’s the other way ? It is what we mentioned in the section for Jung, it is to accept reality in all its discomfort, absurdness , chaos and terror, and to try our best in acting within it without collapsing. So in the context of the given example, it would mean to organize your psyche in such a way that at the table when your friends are looking at you, you realize that being embarrassed, feeling terrified, judged as poor and being the only one to have not enjoyed vacations, is the reality. You’re going to accept it as it is and let everything else happen on its own. And as you’ve mentally prepared yourself before you can say something similar along these lines :

“Oh no, it had been quite a rough year for us. Me and my spouse have been working overtime to make ends meet. So we did check out a few places and hotels but the cost was not within our budget, so we had to drop the plans. Nonetheless, I really wanted to travel, and I hope next summer we can go to a nice place with our kids and have a wonderful time.”

Now saying this isn’t easy at all, it asks the most of you at that moment, but like every other hard thing it gets better as you keep at it, just as you’ve been so much better at lying than when you were a kid. And as we’ve discussed this kind of answer frees you from the long term aim of remembering every single thing you said and why you said so. You just said what was out there and that’s all. After you do it enough times, your psyche’s meaning interpreting machine would be programmed enough so that you can trust on it(yourself) in more difficult situations, until now it’d have gained enough of information to know what axioms under what algorithms produce certain outputs. And that’s something you NEED as a psychological compass to navigate in life from one place to another without getting lost.


Until now we’d been talking about how Lying is not something that you should be doing, we now discuss about how that might not always work. There would be situations when you won’t be able to speak truth in it’s entirety. These are extreme situations that have to be somewhat like exceptions to a general rule of thumb. I found Harris’ description of this, the best. He describes the following scenario in his philosophical essay Lying :

A known murderer is looking for a boy whom you are now sheltering in your home. The murderer is standing at your door and wants to know whether you have seen his intended victim. The temptation to lie is perfectly understandable — but merely lying might produce other outcomes you do not intend. If you say that you saw the boy climb your fence and continue down the block, the murderer may leave, only to kill someone else’s child. You might, even in this unhappy case, believe that lying was necessary and that you did all you could to protect innocent life. But that doesn’t mean someone more courageous or capable than you couldn’t have produced a better result with the truth.

The truth in this case could well be, “I wouldn’t tell you even if I knew. And if you take another step, I’ll put a bullet in your brain.”

This is when we lie without being a liar, here you aren’t really lying in the sense that we’ve been talking about from the starting here. We made it clear that lying is when the person wishes to manipulate the fabric of reality to his own will and this is due to his underlying fear of facing the reality. But here, that’s not really the case, because we can clearly see that the intention behind saying so is not that you can’t accept the reality of a murderer at your door, rather you accept it courageously and decide to not let him take advantage of you and kill the child. In situations like these, (pseudo)moral arguments such as to just outright say where the child is and let him kill the child, are just self-contradictory. As Harris again mentioned in the same section of the essay about his return from Asia, when trapped in an extreme situation you don’t try to be a bravado and be in the illusion you can lie and get away from the situation. What you try to do is, be very precise in your speech and articulate exactly what you know in a minimal and humble manner. And this is because in situations like this, you’re barely on the border of messing everything up and risking your life immediately. Speaking the truth can really save your life in extreme situations, because a lie or deception always puts you at the risk of getting caught in a dangerous way, and once caught there’s basically no way out. So unless you’re diagnosed with psychopathy you shouldn’t really go with the tempting thought of deceiving the other person in such a situation without having some serious aftermath.


  1. We make it clear that the very basic of our axioms that we took for granted in this entire article has some potential counterexamples and exceptions. The most important one being that of psychopathy, where the subject isn’t necessarily afraid of facing the reality(or maybe he is) and thus it might not be the reason for deception. We essentially don’t have knowledge (at least not that I know of) about whether a psychopath would be afraid of reality or not, I believe he isn’t, but nonetheless I feel it’s safe to not include something that I’m not sure about.
  2. We don’t give enough of “serious” examples of lying, such that of betrayal, scandals etc. and this is because we have made the implicit claim that most “serious” lies actually have their roots in something as simple of a lie as lying to your friends. [Check the “Snowball of lies” section]


None of the claims made in this article are original, here are the places where you can read more on what was said in this article :

  1. *Lying ,* Sam Harris, Barnes & Noble, 2011.
  2. Denial Of Death, Ernst Becker, Free Press ,1993.
  3. Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self, Collected Works of C.G Jung-II, Carl Gustav Jung, 1951.
  4. Lee K. (2013). Little Liars: Development of Verbal Deception in Children. Child development perspectives, 7(2), 91–96. https://doi.org/10.1111/cdep.12023
  5. Jordan B. Peterson, Colin G. DeYoung, Erin Driver-Linn, Jean R. Séguin, Daniel M. Higgins, Louise Arseneault, Richard E. Tremblay, Self-deception and failure to modulate responses despite accruing evidence of error, Journal of Research in Personality, Volume 37, Issue 3, 2003. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0092-6566(02)00569-X.
  6. Vasconcellos, Silvio José Lemos, Rizzatti, Matheus, Barbosa, Thamires Pereira, Schmitz, Bruna Sangoi, Coelho, Vanessa Cristina Nascimento, & Machado, Andrea. (2019). Understanding Lies Based on Evolutionary Psychology: A Critical Review. Trends in Psychology, 27(1), 141–153. https://doi.org/10.9788/tp2019.1-11
  7. Taylor SE, Brown JD. Illusion and well-being: a social psychological perspective on mental health. Psychol Bull. 1988 Mar;103(2):193–210. PMID: 3283814.