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Are humans biologically wired to lie? It seems that people create morals and decree that lying is bad. Yet everyone has lied before. Why is this?

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  • $\begingroup$ That a behavior is "biologically wired" is pretty hard to prove, and it may be a sort of theoretically vague assertion anyway. I'm going to throw it out there that our ability to lie emerges from interactions among more basic psychological processes (e.g., mentalizing, reward; Sip et al., 2007). Thus, I'd argue that we're probably not "[hard]wired to lie" in any strong sense. $\endgroup$ – mrt Oct 24 '15 at 19:57
  • $\begingroup$ See also this recent Psych Science paper that suggests that development of theory of mind in children may be necessary for the emergence of lying. $\endgroup$ – mrt Oct 24 '15 at 20:05
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Young children often learn how to lie before they have truly developed a sense for what it is, or why it may be unethical. This is demonstrated by the propensity for children to tell exaggerated and implausible lies, as young children may not yet have a sense of social cognition (or 'theory of mind'), and thus do not yet understand what others may find believable.

A child who examines another adult lying will understand that the adult is not telling the truth, but will see that the achieved effect is often in favor of the liar. Thus they will learn that disguising the truth can achieve a certain (often favorable) result. Like all negative behavior, if the child learns that lying has more negative consequences than positive ones, they will be less quick to demonstrate the behavior.

Despite recognizing it as an unethical behavior, people may still choose to lie out of fear, or to defend from the consequences of truth telling. Lying can also be a pro-social attitude to spare the feelings of another, thus avoiding conflict and preserving civility in human relationships.

From a neurobiological standpoint, there may be parts of the brain that influence the decision to lie. One study showed that pathological liars had increased white matter volumes in certain regions (namely the orbitofrontal, inferior frontal, and middle frontal cortices). [1]


Sources used:

[1] Yang, Y., Raine, A., Narr, K., Lencz, T., LaCasse, L. Colleti, P., Toga, A. (February 2007). "Localisation of increased prefrontal white matter in pathological liars." British Journal of Psychiatry, 190, 174–175.

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