The fictional character Pinocchio is a common depiction of a liar.

A lie is an assertion that is believed to be false, typically used with the purpose of deceiving or misleading someone.[1][2][3] The practice of communicating lies is called lying. A person who communicates a lie may be termed a liar. Lies can be interpreted as deliberately false statements or misleading statements, though not all statements that are literally false are considered lies – metaphors, hyperboles, and other figurative rhetoric are not intended to mislead, while lies are explicitly meant for literal interpretation by their audience. Lies may also serve a variety of instrumental, interpersonal, or psychological functions for the individuals who use them.

Generally, the term "lie" carries a negative connotation, and depending on the context a person who communicates a lie may be subject to social, legal, religious, or criminal sanctions; for instance, perjury, or the act of lying under oath, can result in criminal and civil charges being pressed against the perjurer.

Although people in many cultures believe that deception can be detected by observing nonverbal behaviors (e.g. not making eye contact, fidgeting, stuttering, smiling) research indicates that people overestimate both the significance of such cues and their ability to make accurate judgements about deception.[4][5] More generally, people's ability to make true judgments is affected by biases towards accepting incoming information and interpreting feelings as evidence of truth. People do not always check incoming assertions against their memory.[6]

Types and associated terms


The potential consequences of lying are manifold; some in particular are worth considering. Typically lies aim to deceive, so the hearer may acquire a false belief (or at least something that the speaker believes to be false). When deception is unsuccessful, a lie may be discovered. The discovery of a lie may discredit other statements by the same speaker, thereby staining that speaker's reputation. In some circumstances, it may also negatively affect the social or legal standing of the speaker. Lying in a court of law, for instance, is a criminal offense (perjury).[36]

Hannah Arendt spoke about extraordinary cases in which an entire society is being lied to consistently. She said that the consequences of such lying are "not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer. This is because lies, by their very nature, have to be changed, and a lying government has constantly to rewrite its own history. On the receiving end you get not only one lie – a lie which you could go on for the rest of your days – but you get a great number of lies, depending on how the political wind blows."[37]


Main article: Lie detection

The question of whether lies can be detected reliably through nonverbal has been the subject of frequent study. While people in many cultures believe that deception can be indicated by behaviors such as looking away, fidgeting, or stammering, this is not supported by research.[4][5] A 2019 review of research on deception and its detection through nonverbal behavior concludes that people tend to overestimate both the reliability of nonverbal behavior as an indicator of deception, and their ability to make accurate judgements about deception based on nonverbal behavior.[4][38]

Polygraph "lie detector" machines measure the physiological stress a subject endures in a number of measures while giving statements or answering questions. Spikes in stress indicators are purported to reveal lying. The accuracy of this method is widely disputed. In several well-known cases, application of the technique has been shown to have given incorrect results.[examples needed] Nonetheless, it remains in use in many areas, primarily as a method for eliciting confessions or employment screening. The unreliability of polygraph results is the basis of the exclusion of such evaluations as admissible evidence in many courts, and the technique is generally perceived to be an example of pseudoscience.[39]

A recent study found that composing a lie takes longer than telling the truth and thus, the time taken to answer a question may be used as a method of lie detection.[40] Instant answers with a lie may be proof of a prepared lie. A recommendation provided to resolve that contradiction is to try to surprise the subject and find a midway answer, not too quick, nor too long.[41]


See also: Christian views on lying

Portrait bust of Aristotle made by Lysippos

Utilitarian philosophers have supported lies that achieve good outcomes – white lies.[42] In his 2008 book, How to Make Good Decisions and Be Right All the Time, Iain King suggested a credible rule on lying was possible, and he defined it as: "Deceive only if you can change behaviour in a way worth more than the trust you would lose, were the deception discovered (whether the deception actually is exposed or not)."[43]

Stanford law professor Deborah L. Rhode articulated three rules she says ethicists generally agree distinguish "white lies" from harmful lies or cheating:[44]

Aristotle believed no general rule on lying was possible, because anyone who advocated lying could never be believed, he said.[45] The philosophers St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Immanuel Kant, condemned all lying.[42] According to all three, there are no circumstances in which, ethically, one may lie. Even if the only way to protect oneself is to lie, it is never ethically permissible to lie even in the face of murder, torture, or any other hardship. Each of these philosophers gave several arguments for the ethical basis against lying, all compatible with each other. Among the more important arguments are:

In Lying, neuroscientist Sam Harris argues that lying is negative for the liar and the person who is being lied to. To tell lies is to deny others access to reality, and the harm of lying often cannot be anticipated. The ones lied to may fail to solve problems they could have solved only on a basis of good information. To lie also harms oneself, making the liar distrust the person who is being lied to.[46] Liars generally feel badly about their lies and sense a loss of sincerity, authenticity, and integrity. Harris asserts that honesty allows one to have deeper relationships and to bring all dysfunction in one's life to the surface.

In Human, All Too Human, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche suggested that those who refrain from lying may do so only because of the difficulty involved in maintaining lies. This is consistent with his general philosophy that divides (or ranks) people according to strength and ability; thus, some people tell the truth only out of weakness.

A study was conducted by the University of Nottingham, released in 2016, which utilized a dice roll test where participants could easily lie to get a bigger payout. The study found that in countries with high prevalence of rule breaking, dishonesty in people in their early 20s was more prevalent.[47]

Great apes and mother birds

Possession of the capacity to lie among non-humans has been asserted during language studies with great apes. In one instance, the gorilla Koko, when asked who tore a sink from the wall, pointed to one of her handlers and then laughed.[48]

Deceptive body language, such as feints that mislead as to the intended direction of attack or flight, is observed in many species. A mother bird deceives when she pretends to have a broken wing to divert the attention of a perceived predator – including unwitting humans – from the eggs in her nest, instead to her, as she draws the predator away from the location of the nest, most notably a trait of the killdeer.[49]

Cultural references

Drawing of a puppet with a long nose
Pinocchio, a symbol of untruthfulness


It is asserted that the capacity to lie is a talent human beings possess universally.[54]

The evolutionary theory proposed by Darwin states that only the fittest will survive and by lying, we aim to improve other's perception of our social image and status, capability, and desirability in general.[55] Studies have shown that humans begin lying at a mere age of six months, through crying and laughing, to gain attention.[56]

Scientific studies have shown differences in forms of lying across gender. Although men and women lie at equal frequencies, men are more likely to lie in order to please themselves while women are more likely to lie to please others.[57] The presumption is that humans are individuals living in a world of competition and strict social norms, where they are able to use lies and deception to enhance chances of survival and reproduction.

Stereotypically speaking, David Livingstone Smith asserts that men like to exaggerate about their sexual expertise, but shy away from topics that degrade them while women understate their sexual expertise to make themselves more respectable and loyal in the eyes of men and avoid being labelled as a ‘scarlet woman’.[57]

Those with Parkinson's disease show difficulties in deceiving others, difficulties that link to prefrontal hypometabolism. This suggests a link between the capacity for dishonesty and integrity of prefrontal functioning.[58]

Pseudologia fantastica is a term applied by psychiatrists to the behavior of habitual or compulsive lying. Mythomania is the condition where there is an excessive or abnormal propensity for lying and exaggerating.[59]

A recent study found that composing a lie takes longer than telling the truth.[41] Or, as Chief Joseph succinctly put it, "It does not require many words to speak the truth."[60]

Some people who are not convincing liars truly believe they are.[61]

Religious perspectives

In the Bible

A Torah scroll recovered from Glockengasse Synagogue in Cologne

The Old Testament and New Testament of the Bible both contain statements that God cannot lie and that lying is immoral (Num. 23:19,[62] Hab. 2:3,[63] Heb. 6:13–18).[64] Nevertheless, there are examples of God deliberately causing enemies to become disorientated and confused, in order to provide victory (2 Thess. 2:11;[65][66] 1 Kings 22:23;[67] Ezek. 14:9).[68]

Various passages of the Bible feature exchanges that assert lying is immoral and wrong (Prov. 6:16–19; Ps. 5:6), (Lev. 19:11; Prov. 14:5; Prov. 30:6; Zeph. 3:13), (Isa. 28:15; Dan. 11:27), most famously, in the Ten Commandments: "Thou shalt not bear false witness" (Ex. 20:2–17; Deut. 5:6–21); Ex. 23:1; Matt. 19:18; Mark 10:19; Luke 18:20 a specific reference to perjury.

Other passages feature descriptive (not prescriptive) exchanges where lying was committed in extreme circumstances involving life and death. Most Christian philosophers might argue that lying is never acceptable, but that even those who are righteous in God's eyes sin sometimes. Old Testament accounts of lying include:[69]

In the New Testament, Jesus refers to the Devil as the father of lies (John 8:44) and Paul commands Christians "Do not lie to one another" (Col. 3:9; cf. Lev. 19:11). In the Day of Judgement, unrepentant liars will be punished in the lake of fire. (Rev. 21:8; 21:27).

Augustine's taxonomy

St. Augustine by Carlo Crivelli

Augustine of Hippo wrote two books about lying: On Lying (De Mendacio) and Against Lying (Contra Mendacio).[71][72] He describes each book in his later work, Retractationes. Based on the location of De Mendacio in Retractationes, it appears to have been written about AD 395. The first work, On Lying, begins: "Magna quæstio est de Mendacio" ("There is a great question about Lying"). From his text, it can be derived that St. Augustine divided lies into eight categories, listed in order of descending severity:

Despite distinguishing between lies according to their external severity, Augustine maintains in both treatises that all lies, defined precisely as the external communication of what one does not hold to be internally true, are categorically sinful and therefore, ethically impermissible.[73]

Augustine wrote that lies told in jest, or by someone who believes or opines the lie to be true are not, in fact, lies.[74]

In Buddhism

The fourth of the five Buddhist precepts involves falsehood spoken or committed to by action.[75] Avoiding other forms of wrong speech are also considered part of this precept, consisting of malicious speech, harsh speech, and gossip.[76][77] A breach of the precept is considered more serious if the falsehood is motivated by an ulterior motive [75] (rather than, for example, "a small white lie").[78] The accompanying virtue is being honest and dependable,[79][80] and involves honesty in work, truthfulness to others, loyalty to superiors, and gratitude to benefactors.[81] In Buddhist texts, this precept is considered most important next to the first precept, because a lying person is regarded to have no shame, and therefore capable of many wrongs.[82] Lying is not only to be avoided because it harms others, but also because it goes against the Buddhist ideal of finding the truth.[78][83]

The fourth precept includes avoidance of lying and harmful speech.[84] Some modern Buddhist teachers such as Thich Nhat Hanh interpret this to include avoiding spreading false news and uncertain information.[82] Work that involves data manipulation, false advertising, or online scams can also be regarded as violations.[85] Anthropologist Barend Terwiel [de] reports that among Thai Buddhists, the fourth precept also is seen to be broken when people insinuate, exaggerate, or speak abusively or deceitfully.[86]

In Norse paganism

In Gestaþáttr, one of the sections within the Eddaic poem Hávamál, Odin states that it is advisable, when dealing with "a false foe who lies", to tell lies also.[87]

In Zoroastrianism

Darius I, imagined by a Greek painter, fourth century BCE

Zoroaster teaches that there are two powers in the universe; Asha, which is truth, order, and that which is real, and Druj, which is "the Lie". Later on, the Lie became personified as Angra Mainyu, a figure similar to the Christian Devil, who was portrayed as the eternal opponent of Ahura Mazda (God).

Herodotus, in his mid-fifth-century BC account of Persian residents of the Pontus, reports that Persian youths, from their fifth year to their twentieth year, were instructed in three things – "to ride a horse, to draw a bow, and to speak the Truth".[88] He further notes that:[88] "The most disgraceful thing in the world [the Persians] think, is to tell a lie; the next worst, to owe a debt: because, among other reasons, the debtor is obliged to tell lies."

In Achaemenid Persia, the lie, drauga (in Avestan: druj), is considered to be a cardinal sin and it was punishable by death in some extreme cases. Tablets discovered by archaeologists in the 1930s [89] at the site of Persepolis give us adequate evidence about the love and veneration for the culture of truth during the Achaemenian period. These tablets contain the names of ordinary Persians, mainly traders and warehouse-keepers.[90] According to Stanley Insler of Yale University, as many as 72 names of officials and petty clerks found on these tablets contain the word truth.[91] Thus, says Insler, we have Artapana, protector of truth, Artakama, lover of truth, Artamanah, truth-minded, Artafarnah, possessing splendour of truth, Artazusta, delighting in truth, Artastuna, pillar of truth, Artafrida, prospering the truth, and Artahunara, having nobility of truth.

It was Darius the Great who laid down the "ordinance of good regulations" during his reign. Darius' testimony about his constant battle against the Lie is found in the Behistun Inscription. He testifies:[92] "I was not a lie-follower, I was not a doer of wrong ... According to righteousness I conducted myself. Neither to the weak or to the powerful did I do wrong. The man who cooperated with my house, him I rewarded well; who so did injury, him I punished well."

He asks Ahuramazda, God, to protect the country from "a (hostile) army, from famine, from the Lie".[93]

Darius had his hands full dealing with large-scale rebellion which broke out throughout the empire. After fighting successfully with nine traitors in a year, Darius records his battles against them for posterity and tells us how it was the Lie that made them rebel against the empire. At the Behistun inscription, Darius says: "I smote them and took prisoner nine kings. One was Gaumata by name, a Magian; he lied; thus he said: I am Smerdis, the son of Cyrus ... One, Acina by name, an Elamite; he lied; thus he said: I am king in Elam ... One, Nidintu-Bel by name, a Babylonian; he lied; thus he said: I am Nebuchadnezzar, the son of Nabonidus. ... The Lie made them rebellious, so that these men deceived the people."[94] Then advice to his son Xerxes, who is to succeed him as the great king: "Thou who shalt be king hereafter, protect yourself vigorously from the Lie; the man who shall be a lie-follower, him do thou punish well, if thus thou shall think. May my country be secure!"[citation needed]

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  93. ^ DPd inscription, lines 12–24: "Darius the King says: May Ahuramazda bear me aid, with the gods of the royal house; and may Ahuramazda protect this country from a (hostile) army, from famine, from the Lie! Upon this country may there not come an army, nor famine, nor the Lie; this I pray as a boon from Ahuramazda together with the gods of the royal house. This boon may Ahuramazda together with the gods of the royal house give to me! "
  94. ^ "Darius, Behishtan (DB), Column 1". Archived from the original on 19 July 2017. Retrieved 27 July 2015. From Kent, Roland G. (1953). Old Persian: Grammar, texts, lexicon. New Haven: American Oriental Society.

General and cited sources

Further reading