Why we lie at work (and not only there)

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Stalin, Cagliostro, Iago and, in the end, the unconscious. Only a few of the biggest liars in history. About Stalin, there is not much to say, if not the fact that he erased the very own definition of truth and led the entire population to lie: because of terror, necessity, habit.

Cagliostro is nicer, able to usurp noble titles, deceive monks and the poor, as well as anticipating the figure of the charlatan doctor.

Iago only told one lie, about a dream about Desdemona that led Othello to interpret true facts in a wrong way. He was the prototype of the manipulator, showing that the most refined art of lying consists in working on the context and moving the pieces of the whole, or omitting some. In sum, building the lie with the available truths.

In the end, the unconscious, the most common of liars. It feeds stupid and childish resentments. According to some, it is wretched, to others it is a legend. It makes the conscious say what it thinks, without ever having the courage to show itself.

Then, there are all the others that, like background actors, appear and disappear from the scene, sometimes unable to tell the truth. Often denying it with the audacity of blindness: they lie on the reality they do not see and/or from which they need to escape. We all know some of them, audacious, eager, coherent in lying. But, unfortunately, we recognize them only once we fall in the trap. In the spider’s web, sneaky, tenacious, fascinating in their multifaceted appearance, like a diamond…

But, since this is a didactic article, there is the need to move from History to Science.

Numbers, evidence and lies

Most people lie during negotiations and commercial talks, and everybody believes they were victim of liars at work” is the result of the study Evidence for the Pinocchio effect, conducted by Deepak Malhotra, professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School.

Supporting the data, there is another research, this time conducted by Glassdoor on a sample of a thousand workers in the UK, where almost half of the employees admitted to lie at work.

The reasons?

  • 44% did it to avoid trouble
  • 34% to hide one of their errors,
  • 40% says they lie to avoid standing out from their colleagues and because they find being in agreement with the majority easier
  • 24% because they know that their boss or colleagues do not like to hear different opinions
  • 17% prefers a lie than a sincere feedback – and maybe too direct – towards their colleagues

How much is a lie acceptable at work?

According to research, just 22% of workers admits that lying at work is possible, but more than two thirds says they are convinced that a white lie – what you say to avoid hurting the feelings of the colleagues – does not represent a problem. On the contrary, 75% believs that saying what they are thinking really brings only troubles, and more than half (56%) says they are used to hide their own feelings in the workplace.

Another research suggests that one of the reasons for the tenacity of lies, in certain professions, such as those oriented to sale, is the belief that people with flexible behaviors towards truth are better.

Researchers asked participants to the study to categorize certain workplaces with regards to perceived orientation to sale and to evaluate individuals in terms of competence. The participants were presented the following type of scenario: recording expenses, “Julie” claims that a taxi ride cost more than it was actually worth; “James” lies about loving going on a sail boat to have a higher chance to develop his career with a boss that has a passion for that sport.

In conclusion, it emerged that, for some roles, such the commercial one, knowing how to lie is considered a pro: 84% of participants to the study chose to hire liars for a task that is highly oriented to sale, while 75% chose to hire honest people for a job with a low orientation to sale.

Most people lie during negotiations and commercial talks and everybody believes they were victim of liars at work.

The positive side to lying at work

Nature is flooded with deceits“, the philosopher David Livingstone Smith claims. Viruses deceive the immune system of their hosts, chameleons use their mimetism to deceive their predators. Humans make no exception. Let us not forget that deceit is necessary in some jobs, spies and investigators are an example of that, as well as diplomats.

Without taking into consideration the fact that some studies suggest that people coming from cultures oriented to the group have a higher chance to lie, to protect its harmony. A study has placed 1500 students, coming from eight different countries, in a scenario of a business negotiation, in which lying would have been useful. Those that came from more collectivist countries (such as South Korea and Greece) used deceit more than those coming from individualist countries (such as Australia and Germany), although the use of lies was overall high.

Pinocchio effect

Human predisposition to lie takes the name of Pinocchio effect, and it is easy to know why. Here are some useful hints to recognize, anticipate behaviors of deceit and dishonesty and make our life easier.

  • Liars tend to use more words than average, presumably trying to win the counterpart with eloquence. Just as Pinocchio’s nose, the number of words increases along the lie.
  • Lies tend to say more swear words, especially when in difficult situations. Lying requires a surplus of cognitive energy and using the brain to tell lies can make language monitoring difficult.
  • People that tell lies by omission, neglecting pertinent information rather than overtly lying, tend instead to use less word and shorter sentences.
  • Liars use more third-person pronouns (he, she, it, one, they, rather than “I”). This is a way to distance themselves and avoiding ownership of the lie.
  • Liars talk using more complex sentences than those who omit something or tell the truth.
  • Silence increases suspects more than false lies. In terms of success in deceiving, it is more effective to lie overtly. It is a machiavellian strategy, but, trust me, has more success.
  • Liars are recognized more often when writing a lie than face to face. In an e-mail exchange, the reader has the chance to check information more than one time and at their own pace, avoiding distractions when compared to hearing a person live.

But it does not end here.

When someone lies, the nose shortens…

Additional research proved that, when lying, the nose heats up. Using thermocameras, psychiatrists from the University of Grenada in Spain were able to measure a temperature increase in the noses and the regions around the eyes of people who were telling lies.

The Pinocchio effect would show a metamorphosis of the face and the nose when a subject lies, but, instead increasing in length as in Collodi’s book, the nose would shorten.

Thanks to the use of tools that measure body temperature, researchers asked 60 students to do various activities when they underwent a scan through a thermal imaging and it was observed that, anytime a subject lied, the temperature of the forehead increased of 1.5°C, and that of the nose decreased of 1.2°c, causing a reduction that was not perceivable by the naked eye.

The students were asked to make a phone call of a few minutes to parents, partners or friends, and to invent a credible lie during the call.

The method that was used seems to reveal an efficacy and accuracy that is 10% higher than the polygraph, commonly known as the lie detector, and monitored a difference in temperature in 80% of the subjects observed during the test.

I know that this may not seem very practical. Generally, we don’t have a thermocamera in our backpack, and we cannot even ask to put a hand on the nose before asking a question, aiming at measuring the veracity of the answer, but, focusing the attention on the way of speaking, many liars will be on their last legs.

Laura Mondino


[1] Malhotra D., Van Swol L., Braun M.T., Evidence for the Pinocchio effect: linguistic differences between lies, deception by omissions and truths, Discourse Processes, Vol. 49, Issue 2 (2012), pp. 79-106

[2] http://hrnews.co.uk/half-of-employees-have-lied-at-work/

[3] Brian C. Gunia, Emma E. Levine, Deception as competence: The effect of occupational stereotypes on the perception and proliferation of deception, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Vol. 152, 2019, pp. 122-137.

[4] Smith D.L., Why we lie. The evolutionary roots of deception and the unconscious mind, Griffin, 2007

[5] https://www.fastcompany.com/3032863/heres-the-truth-about-lying-at-work

[6]https://www.vice.com/en/article/dpk87w/how-to-lie-pro-tips-from-undercover-cops-dominatrixes-lawyers-and-more

[7] Triandis HC, Carnevale P, Gelfand M, et al., Culture and Deception in Business Negotiations: A Multilevel Analysis. International Journal of Cross Cultural Management. 2001;1(1):73-90.

[8] https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/12/121203081834.htm

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