Why We Lie

This, by Judge Kozinski, is from a Federal court ruling about false statements and First Amendment protection

Saints may always tell the truth, but for mortals living means lying. We lie to protect our privacy (“No, I don’t live around here”); to avoid hurt feelings (“Friday is my study night”); to make others feel better (“Gee you’ve gotten skinny”); to avoid recriminations (“I only lost $10 at poker”); to prevent grief (“The doc says you’re getting better”); to maintain domestic tranquility (“She’s just a friend”); to avoid social stigma (“I just haven’t met the right woman”); for career advancement (“I’m sooo lucky to have a smart boss like you”); to avoid being lonely (“I love opera”); to eliminate a rival (“He has a boyfriend”); to achieve an objective (“But I love you so much”); to defeat an objective (“I’m allergic to latex”); to make an exit (“It’s not you, it’s me”); to delay the inevitable (“The check is in the mail”); to communicate displeasure (“There’s nothing wrong”); to get someone off your back (“I’ll call you about lunch”); to escape a nudnik (“My mother’s on the other line”); to namedrop (“We go way back”); to set up a surprise party (“I need help moving the piano”); to buy time (“I’m on my way”); to keep up appearances (“We’re not talking divorce”); to avoid taking out the trash (“My back hurts”); to duck an obligation (“I’ve got a headache”); to maintain a public image (“I go to church every Sunday”); to make a point (“Ich bin ein Berliner“); to save face (“I had too much to drink”); to humor (“Correct as usual, King Friday”); to avoid embarrassment (“That wasn’t me”); to curry favor (“I’ve read all your books”); to get a clerkship (“You’re the greatest living jurist”); to save a dollar (“I gave at the office”); or to maintain innocence (“There are eight tiny reindeer on the rooftop”)….

An important aspect of personal autonomy is the right to shape one’s public and private persona by choosing when to tell the truth about oneself, when to conceal, and when to deceive. Of course, lies are often disbelieved or discovered, and that, too, is part of the push and pull of social intercourse. But it’s critical to leave such interactions in private hands, so that we can make choices about who we are. How can you develop a reputation as a straight shooter if lying is not an option?

Two books on the evolutionary psychology of lying are related: David Livingstone Smith’s Why We Lie, and Dan Ariely’s The Honest Truth about Dishonesty.

Posted on May 30, 2013 at 6:31 AM38 Comments


ads May 30, 2013 7:13 AM

That’s a fantastic list. I wonder how many of those were verbatim from the Judge’s own experience?

Ratskalnikov May 30, 2013 8:03 AM

This is obviously an accurate observation, but neglects the “equal and opposite reaction” part – many or most people will recant or confess after telling this sort of lie, in different ways. “You’ve gotten skinny” can (after a few days) turn in to “want to go for a run?” It’s a tactic used in coaching, child-rearing, etc. Lying isn’t always bad.

Does this make my *ss look fat?

Bill May 30, 2013 8:16 AM

While this is all well and good, and most of us are guilty of these types of “white lies”, they are usually meant to defer someone and then forget about it. However, when pressed on one of these, what do you do? Do you come clean, or do you perpetuate the fallacy to the point where you have established a completely false chain of events that becomes more and more difficult to maintain? At what point is it acceptable to save face and come clean?

Adam May 30, 2013 8:23 AM

I think many of the examples given by the judge are not acceptable and show a weak moral character. My surprise is that they are given as if they were completely the norm and not remarkable for their dishonesty.

Argon May 30, 2013 8:58 AM

And of course, two other classic reasons, because it makes me feel good and to make others feel bad.


By the way Bruce, I think your shirt looks quite ridiculous.

vas pup May 30, 2013 8:59 AM

What about the fact that you can’t give false statement to Federal agent (crime), but SCOTUS decided that Federal agent could lie to you (okay)?
Should be any balance of ‘rights to lie’
on both sides? If no balance, how trust could be established?

Jay May 30, 2013 9:50 AM

I’m glad you referenced Dan Ariely – I just read his book Predictably Irrational and couldn’t help but think “Bruce Schneier would love this” while reading every single chapter.

AlanS May 30, 2013 10:21 AM

I think you should read some foundational texts in modern sociology:

Erving Goffman 1959 The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.

Berger and Luckmann 1966 The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge.

Bob T May 30, 2013 10:43 AM

“Ich bin ein Berliner” hahhaha!

“I’m not a crook.”

“Read my lips, no new taxes.”

“I didn’t not have sex with that woman. Ms. Lewinsky.”

“I was born in Hawaii.”

Wayne Conrad May 30, 2013 12:14 PM

@Adam, I believe the judge is neither condoning, nor admitting to all of the lies in that list. He is simply listing the reasons people lie.

His opinion does not deal with whether or not any given category of lie is good or bad, but whether or not lies–of whatever moral standing–are protected speech.

It’s a remarkable opinion, clearly stated, and (because I agree with it) worth reading. The dissenting opinions are (because I disagree with them) barely cogent.

Daniel May 30, 2013 1:01 PM

@vas pup.

Bingo! That is the rub. The problem isn’t the who and the what of lying but the underlying power structure. Because if it OK for Party A to lie but not OK for Party B to lie then the playing field is inherently unbalanced. Party B starts at a significant disadvantage.

Kozinski’s solution to this problem is to shift the legal burden of proof. Namely, that the government has to prove that the person is telling an untruth rather than the person having to prove they are telling the truth. The problem is that there is no punishment for the government lying. We have seen this time and time again with jailhouse snitches. They lie on the stand to get a reduced sentence, their lies are uncovered, and then two weeks later they are back on the stand in another case lying again.

If the government can lie with impunity then the citizen must be able to lie with impunity. Otherwise, it is simple tyranny.

anon May 30, 2013 2:34 PM

In a court of law, you’re lying from the get go if you “swear to tell the truth so help you God”, if you happen know there is no God.

The justice system is based on a whopper.

Bob T May 30, 2013 2:57 PM


We understand your bitterness considering it was your wife who started it all. 🙂

Gno Lai May 30, 2013 4:20 PM

Raise your right hand and tell the judge:

“I swear to tell the truth, and nothing but the truth, but the minute anybody tries to cut me off when I’m trying to tell the WHOLE truth, we’re done.”

Heh. They don’t seem to like that much.

Q May 30, 2013 5:02 PM

The actual text to place a witness under oath varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Most of the jurisdictions I practice in have omitted references to God. Due to religious objections (e.g., Quakers), many jurisdictions also have state “swear or affirm”.

Dirk Praet May 30, 2013 6:49 PM

Some others that come to mind:

  • To instill fear in others (“Gazillions of bloodthirsty terrorists are going to murder us because they hate our freedoms.”)
  • To control others (“God is speaking through my mouth. Do what he’s telling or it’s eternal damnation for you.”)
  • To make a buck (“This multi-million dollar security system of ours will totally protect you from these bloodthirsty terrorists”)
  • To get laid (“I am Bruce Schneier”)
  • To cover your ass (“We did not set up this complex financial construction to avoid taxes. It’s all perfectly legal and the system is at fault.”)

  • To get an underage prostitute out of jail (“Release her immediately. She’s a niece of the Egyptian president and you don’t want to cause a diplomatic incident”)

  • To get elected (“I will close Guantanamo”)

  • To start a war (“My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we’re giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.”)

I guess the list is endless.

hoodathunkit May 30, 2013 7:56 PM

Dirk Praet wrote:”Some others that come to mind . . .”
Swish! The sound of a point passing overhead. Kozinski’s ‘but for mortals living means lying’ was about common, everyday untruths.

Gweihir May 30, 2013 8:39 PM

I lie only rarely and then only with very good reasons. Reading this, I now feel abnormal. It does explain why the world-view of many people and in particular politics has so little connection to reality though.

anonymous May 31, 2013 1:29 AM

Gweihir: “I lie only rarely and then only with very good reasons. Reading this, I now feel abnormal. It does explain why the world-view of many people and in particular politics has so little connection to reality though.”

I felt the same. People tend to see other people similar to themselves. If you lie a lost, you are inclined to think that the other people lie all the time too. Also being a judge means your job is practically to make sense of people’s lies so maybe the fact that criminals often lie to escape justice affects his view too.

Bryan May 31, 2013 2:19 AM


  • To get laid (“I am Bruce Schneier”)

I assume, since you’re including it, that this actually works. Thanks for the tip. Honest!


P.S. Thanks for the pun, Lars.

Benjamin May 31, 2013 2:57 AM

If anyone’s curious (since I was), the case revolved around a man who falsely claimed to be a recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor while running for a minor local office. He was convicted under the Stolen Valor Act, which makes it illegal to falsely claim to have been awarded military honors.

A 3-judge panel of the 9th circuit reversed, ruling the act unconstitutional. The opinion Bruce is quoting was the full circuit ruling not to hear an appeal. The case eventually made it to the Supreme Court, where the act was struck down in a 4/2/3 decision.

Details on Wikipedia.

Jack May 31, 2013 8:17 AM

What is deeply true… the most seriously damaging and persistent lies people make are to their own selves.

Very few can live at a high level of honesty.

If you want to see through lies, you have to get out of dream worlds and perceive reality as it really is.

People want things simple. They want to be Republican or Democrat, Hindu or Baptist, Atheist or Muslim. They do not want too many choices.

They do not want too many unknowns. They like clean, straight lines. But, the world is not made with clean, straight lines.

Very smart people tend to hyper focus in certain areas where they allow what is comparatively a large number of unknowns. But, in everyday life, people want to complete the picture and have everything nice and tidy.

Nobody can really know anything fully, but that is not the problem. The problem is about filling in the answers which are incorrect. Children tend to stay away from this and are much better at this then adults.

People show they are liars when they show how selectively they hold to lies in their perceptions. They will know what unknowns they can paint up with answers they do not have and are likely to get called on. And those they will paint up the darkest and best.

Nobody likes to be wrong, to be proven stupid, yet we do this anyway. Usually, we tell ourselves we can get away with it, because of the social bubbles we adhere to.

When everyone around you accepts the same lies you do, there is little apparent danger of getting shown up. People feel secure. They can rest.

So, our deep, internal lies to our own selves are also intrinsically tied to the society around us.

Comparatively, the “modern” or “western” world might as well as be some primitive tribe lost in time and jungle, though.

Or a North Korea which is oblivious to the propaganda.

Jack May 31, 2013 9:02 AM

@Adam “I think many of the examples given by the judge are not acceptable and show a weak moral character. My surprise is that they are given as if they were completely the norm and not remarkable for their dishonesty.”

The dishonesty I see in the judge’s opinion is first rung out strong and loudly, arguing that telling the truth is impossible for “mortals”.

He then goes further and shows he has no capacity to discern between metaphor, inexactness, sarcasm and intentional, malicious lying.

No surprise, because his argument starts right out with an outrageous slap in the face: truth can only be found in the outreaches of legend and myth.

(Not my definition of saint, but I can see why popular religion has decided to create myths of out of real people in false humility. Keeps their heads down while they go through life claiming they do not see things right in front of their faces — besides that it removes every expectation of capability of processing truth with a sick wink.)

Brian Krebs is the Chris Hansen of Cyber Security May 31, 2013 11:11 AM

Some lies are mutually beneficial or white lies. What guy needs to ever be told that a girl won’t date him because she finds him disgusting? What girl needs the physical risk of saying that to people? I think most people take issue with those who lie in cases when most other normal people under normal circumstances would not, aka an out-liar {derp}. It’s not black and white, but a gradient scale. On one end you have the dogmatic dolts who are too stupid to even protect themselves, on the other end are the sociopathic liars who lie constantly to even close friends and family because they get a thrill out of controlling and confusing people.

The closer we get to people, the more we expect them to sacrifice easy self-protection for intimacy and trust. I think among non-pathological people, the problem occurs when one person perceives themselves to be in reciprocal trust tier with another person, and thus entitled to a similar level of honesty and disclosure. For example, if Facebook suddenly published everyone’s close friends lists, the sheer amount of disharmony caused by the exposure of these previously concealed trust discrepancies would cause a psychodramatic discontentment explosion with an energy equivalent to that of a ten megaton nuke. It’d be like the whole world was getting cheated on at once.

Gordon May 31, 2013 3:40 PM

The case in the linked pdf also noted that cosmetic surgery, make up, high heels and elevated shoes, toupees, and make-up were also deceptions protected by the first amendment. As Kathy Lee and Hoda so kindly demonstrated on their show, sometimes deception is a necessary attribute of a profession.

Because the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Read the link.

YankeeFrank May 31, 2013 8:00 PM

In my experience, those who make the boldest claims to honesty and integrity are often some of the biggest liars around. They just pretend that certain things aren’t lies: they tell the literal truth but often hide emotional truth, or pretend it doesn’t actually exist.

The commenters here that sound shocked at all the lies people tell sound either superior or bitter. Feeling superior or cynically bitter are emotional manipulations that are used as weapons to undermine confidence or signal disdain. They are are more harmful and dishonest than the white lies in the judge’s list. They are dishonest because those who use them rarely admit what they are doing (if they even consciously know) and are harmful because they place others in a defensive position or sow antagonism. And angry people strike at others by telling the truth when its not appropriate or kind, hiding behind the excuse of integrity.

T May 31, 2013 8:58 PM

The judge’s words remind me a lot of something the Canadian Privacy Commissioner said a long time ago:

The truth is that we all do have something to hide, not because it’s criminal or even shameful, but simply because it’s private. We carefully calibrate what we reveal about ourselves to others. Most of us are only willing to have a few things known about us by a stranger, more by an
acquaintance, and the most by a very close friend or a romantic partner. The right not to be known against our will – indeed, the right to be anonymous except when we choose to identify ourselves – is at the very core of human dignity, autonomy and freedom.

vas pup June 3, 2013 8:30 AM

That smart Canadian guy should be in position of authority in the USA, and have the same type official within US Federal Government sounds reasonable.

NZ June 3, 2013 9:30 AM

if you happen know there is no God.
At least technically, you can’t know there is no God, you can only believe that there is no God.

It seems that I have found a small bug in the way Preview button handles &ampgt; and &ampgt; sequences. How should I report it?

Tom Ace June 4, 2013 12:15 PM

preve wrote: “You lie to the FBI its a federal crime
FBI lies to you, They already have, its their job.”

We in the USA are accustomed to police being
entitled to lie during interrogations, but it’s not that
way everywhere. In Germany, deceit by authorities
is forbidden (along with mistreatment, hypnosis,
and other techniques) as a means of influencing
suspects, and statements obtained by such
means are inadmissible:


vas pup June 6, 2013 2:39 PM

@Tom Ace:
” 136a (1) Freedom of the will and the will-resolution actuation of the accused must not be compromised by abuse, induced fatigue, physical interference, the administration of drugs, torment, deception or hypnosis. Coercion may be applied, as far as the criminal law permits. The threat of an illegal action according to its rules and the promise of a benefit not provided for by law are prohibited.
(2) Measures affecting the memory or the ability to understand the accused are not permitted.
(3) The prohibition in paragraphs 1 and 2 shall apply without regard to the consent of the accused. Statements that are in breach of this prohibition shall also not be used if the accused has agreed.” – just Google translation into English of link provided.
Do you have plea bargain in Germany?

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