Why Do People Lie When They Can Easily Get Caught?

3 minute read

On Wednesday, Steve Rannazzisi—a comedian who found fame on MTV’s Punk’d and has stars in the popular FXX show The Leagueadmitted he had fabricated a story that he said was the basis for his success: barely escaping the tumbling south tower on September 11, 2001, while working a desk job at Merrill Lynch.

Rannazzisi, in fact, was nowhere near the World Trade Center on that day, and Merrill Lynch has no record of his ever having being an employee.

Why would someone who was high-profile and easily traceable in this digital age, with no obvious reason to lie about where he was on 9/11, lie?

There’s no clear answer, and one can only speculate as to what motivated Rannazzisi. But to the question of why people lie when they can get caught, researchers have some theories.

Many people in leadership positions are narcissists, says Amy Brunell, a psychologist based at the Ohio State University campus in Mansfield, who has made a career out of understanding the psychology of narcissists and what drives their behavior—including their tendency to cheat. “They lie because they want to look good and rise to fame,” she says.

It’s this desire to leap to higher levels of recognition, no matter the moral consequences, that may be behind some lying.

Some people lie for reputation purposes, said Pamela Meyer, author of the book Liespotting and CEO of Calibrate, which has made a business out of picking out deception in professional environments and law enforcement. While each case is different, she says motivations to lie often fall into two categories. A person might lie for practical reasons, such as to avoid conflict. These lies are often what we refer to as “white lies,” and they don’t necessarily involve an internal moral conflict so much as they avoid a future conflict.

Another common reason people lie is to attempt to bolster their reputation. And this plays into narcissistic tendencies, Meyer says. “With someone who is narcissistic, they’re kind of agnostic about the source of supply of attention,” Meyer said. “They just want attention in some way.”

Brunell agrees. “How they get there isn’t an issue,” she says.

Of course, as Meyer has pointed out in her own TED Talk, everyone lies about something or another at some point, so it’s impossible to generalize about why.

In the case of Rannazzisi, Brunell offers this: “When we hear survivor stories, we are engaged. Why wouldn’t you believe something like this happened?”

In Ranazzisi’s case, it worked until Wednesday.

5 Horrible Habits You Need to Stop Right Now

Do Not Email First Thing in the Morning or Last Thing at Night “The former scrambles your priorities and all your plans for the day and the latter just gives you insomnia,” says Ferriss, who insists “email can wait until 10am” or after you check off at least one substantive to-do list item.Chris Pecoraro—Getty Images
Do Not Agree to Meetings or Calls With No Clear Agenda or End Time “If the desired outcome is defined clearly… and there’s an agenda listing topics–questions to cover–no meeting or call should last more than 30 minutes,” claims Ferriss, so “request them in advance so you can ‘best prepare and make good use of our time together.'”Sam Edwards—Getty Images/Caiaimage
Do Not Check Email Constantly Batch it and check it only periodically at set times (Ferriss goes for twice a day). Your inbox is analogous to a cocaine pellet dispenser, says Ferriss. Don’t be an addict. Tools like strategic use of the auto responder and Boomerang can help.Jetta Productions—Getty Images
Do Not Carry a Digital Leash 24/7 At least one day a week leave you smartphone somewhere where you can’t get easy access to it. If you’re gasping, you’re probably the type of person that most needs to do kick this particular habit.by nacoki ( MEDIA ARC )—Getty Images/Flickr RF
Do Not Let People Ramble Sounds harsh, but it’s necessary, Ferriss believes. “Small talk takes up big time,” he says, so when people start to tell you about their weekends, cut them off politely with something like “I’m in the middle of something, but what’s up?” But be aware, not everyone agrees with this one (and certainly not in every situation), and you may want to pay particularly close attention to norms around chit chat when traveling internationally.Reza Estakhrian—Getty Images

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Write to Tanya Basu at tanya.basu@time.com