Why do some people lie for another?

Would you lie for someone else? You probably would under the right circumstances. Like all decisions, the choice to lie whether it is about something you did or something someone else did, is a risk versus reward decision. There are many circumstances in which the choice to lie is completely valid.

But what about those incidents when someone lies for another person without any readily apparent reason? What about the risk and no visible reward? According to Fincham and Jaspars’ 1979 study, there is a strong tendency to punish people for the intentions behind wrongdoing (such as lying) instead of the actual offense in cases in which they aren’t the same. This is consistent with what is known as the attribution theory. This would also indicate why someone may lie for another.

If your best friend were in big trouble because he stole a soda and got caught, would you back up his bogus story that he “thought” he paid for it, or “found” it or whatever excuse he could come up with? Depending on your level of friendship, you just might. After all, it is expected that even if your ruse does not work, you will not get in any trouble because what you intended might be perceived as some as inherently noble- you were just doing the “loyal” thing. With this in mind, you never really faced any true risk in this risk versus reward situation. The reward was helping your friend, and maybe even feeling good about doing a “noble” task. The risk was virtually zero. Consistent with Fincham and Jaspars’ research, you will most likely be judged on your intentions- helping a friend- instead of the lie you told. This is a powerful factor.

But what about more serious offenses, like robbery or even murder? The same forces are still at play, but the expectation of reprieve for the person who is lying for his robbing or murdering friend should diminish. His aura of nobility will erode in the eyes of the accuser, but his actions still may be plausible- “I wanted to be a good friend”. To be clear, it is very doubtful that if the two conspirators were simply acquaintances, the second person will very unlikely lie for the first. The stronger the bond between the two, the more likely they are to lie for each other.

There is another factor to be considered as well. Immediacy. The human mind has a tendency to create its own reality and has only a casual relationship with logic. Research has shown that most people (80%) will accept a $5 gift today over a $10 gift 30 days after the offer. The closer the situation is to the now, the more power it exerts over you. A friend that needs your help now, legitimate or not, will have more weight on your decision than the possible punishment that may occur some time in the future. The punishment is not even certain, the friend in need, however, is. These are strong social and psychological influences that not everybody can overcome.

A third factor is transferred responsibility. Lying for another is often a decision made without believing that we have truly done anything wrong. When our friend desperately begs us to lie for them, we can lie for them without truly bearing the responsibility for the act. This eliminates much of the guilt problem. Once the gig is up and we have been busted, the truth again becomes our friend and we can confess and be expected to be forgiven to some degree. You see this with kids quite often. Little Suzy lied for Little Johnny and when caught, Suzy proclaims “He made me do it!”. Suzy never felt she was truly doing anything wrong, and had an out if she got caught.

It is important to keep in mind factors that alter the decision making process. As previously mentioned, if the friendship is weak, the likelihood of getting someone to lie for you diminishes. Also, if the offense is morally apprehensible, such as rape or child molestation, it is highly unlikely that a morally normal associate will help, no matter the friendship. The risk clearly outweighs the reward and the decision is equally clear.

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