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More Than Smoke and Mirrors: The Mental Processes Behind Lying

Chances are you have heard George Washington’s legendary axiom “I cannot tell a lie,”but such words are themselves a lie. No, I am not accusing the first president of being a pathological liar. But I AM arguing that lying is a human function that is difficult to avoid altogether.

Lying spans multiple realms; philosophers debate its moral implications, some religious communities consider it a mortal sin, and Americans witness it in our own political and sociocultural environment (let’s just say that George Washington wasn’t the only Commander in Chief who failed to tell the truth). But lying also has a cognitive element, meaning it involves mental processes such as attention and memory.

George Washington famously said, “I cannot tell a lie.” Was he referring to his honest character or to the toll that lying takes on our mental resources?

To ensure we are all on the same page, I will start by defining lying as the deliberate act of giving another person false information or misleading them verbally in some way (Gombos, 2006). According to some recent data, most people lie on a daily basis, but that does not mean our mental processes are well-served by it (Docan-Morgan, 2021). For starters, lying is more task-demanding than telling the truth; when people lie, they have to a) decide to do so in the first place, b) push down the truth within their mind, c) fabricate a plausible alternative, and d) ensure that all the details of their lie align and make sense to other people—processes that are obviously more taxing and time-consuming than telling the truth, which is what we automatically know or have actually experienced (Hu & Fu, 2012). For example, you sneak out to your boyfriend’s house in the middle of the night and your parents catch you. Do you fess up or act innocent? If the latter, what is your cover-up story for why you are crawling out the window at 2 a.m.? How do you deliver your lie in a way that is believable to your parents? All these decisions must be made in a matter of seconds, demonstrating the mental gymnastics that go into a single lie.

This points us to a core concept of attention and cognitive psychology in general: inhibition. In basic terms, inhibition is the mental operation that involves suppressing certain elements or stimuli within our mind so that other ones can be present within our attention, which has a limited capacity (Sporer, 2016).

Additionally, inhibition generally takes time to carry out because it requires us to override automatic processes, such as knowing or telling the truth (Houdé & Borst, 2018). As I mentioned earlier, lying is not simply about making up false information but also about pushing down (i.e., inhibiting) the truth. In fact, inhibition has physical as well as cognitive manifestations; as shown in Image 2, when people suppress the truth, they express verbal hesitation, slower hand movements, and dilated pupils (Gombos, 2006). For example, when people lie, they might frequently say “uh” and “um,” words that indicate they are running out of space in their brain to hold the false details included in lies.

Our bodies, gestures, and speech patterns can often give away when we’re lying.

Holding information in our attentional window is only one piece of the puzzle of lying, though.

This is where memory comes into play. Any invented story relies on long-term memory, whether it means pulling from our memory of past experiences to substitute for real events or relying on our general knowledge to construct a believable lie (e.g., if your parents ask where you were last Friday night, you have to reach back into your memory for the true answer, which is that last Friday night you were at your boyfriend’s house past curfew).

Lying also relates to working memory, which is our ability to process and remember multiple pieces of information at once (Burmester, 2017). Examples of working memory might include remembering what your teacher just said in her lecture while you write it down or keeping the order of events of a story in mind while someone tells it to you. When it comes to deception, working memory is utilized to remember the details of our particular lie while simultaneously conveying that information verbally (Gombos, 2006). In this sense, working memory is involved in deception because it requires us to recall our lie and constantly update our response to follow-up questions if someone suspects us of lying. Because deception requires us to balance multiple and contradicting pieces of information, people with better working memories are more efficiently able to manage that load, making them better liars.

Working memory involves multiple processes such as briefly holding information and simultaneously directing attention, such as when you have to remember what your teacher just said in her lecture while you write it down in your notes.

At this point, you might be wondering WHY we still lie, given that it takes more cognitive resources from our attention and memory systems than telling the truth. The truth is (no pun intended) that lying, while cognitively taxing, is not impossible. Just because something is hard does not mean we cannot do it. In this sense lying is a process mastered by practice, just like strengthening a muscle or rehearsing an instrument; if we tell the same lie over and over again, odds are we become better at it, meaning good liars are not necessarily more cunning people but simply those who have rehearsed their tall tales. For example, if you repeatedly sneak out to your boyfriend’s house in the middle of the night, you may have to tell the same lie multiple weeks in a row to do so, and you may have to tell it to not only your parents but also your siblings, your boyfriend’s parents, and your friends, making you well-versed in the lie you are telling (it’s important to note the distinction between lying—which is knowing the truth and choosing not to tell it—and confabulation—which is generating a false memory without the intent of deceiving people). There are obviously other reasons that people lie, such as to advance self-interest or protect other’s feelings, but these say nothing about the mental gymnastics that go into telling a lie. So perhaps lying is less about motivations or morals and more about methods and memory.


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Aïte, A., Houdé, O., &Borst, G. (2018). Stop in the name of lies: The cost of blocking the truth to deceive. Consciousness and Cognition: An International Journal, 65, 141–151. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.concog.2018.07.015

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Docan-Morgan, Tony (2021). How often do people lie? Currents: University of Wisconsin—La Crosse Blog. https://www.uwlax.edu/currents/how-often-do-people-lie/#:~:text=Most%20people%20%E2%80%94%20about%2075%20%25%20of,lies%20were%20little%20white%20lies.

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