#84 “He’s a Liar” – Why That’s Often Not True

photo: He's A Liar

He said something false… Others told us what he says is not true. We have documentation. We were there at the time and it didn’t happen that way. He’s trying to hide something, avoid responsibility, or unfairly advance his interests. It’s clear because what he is saying is not true, so he’s a liar. Right?

Well… not exactly. There’s more to it.

We become alerted to the possibility of a lie when a statement contradicts a fact we know to be true. However, if we really care about reliability of facts, we should look at credibility. Credibility is what judges care about in testimony and it involves more than honesty (or the dishonesty of lying).

lie (def): willful misrepresentation of the truth or the facts

credibility (def): reliability in accurately representing the truth or the facts

So, a lie is to know a fact or truth and intentionally say something else. Credibility is a larger consideration that includes lying, but it also includes other explanations for lack of accuracy.

Below are some of the factors that can negatively affect our ability to provide a credible (accurate) account of facts or events:

1) We make errors. We think we remember seeing August 23 on a document. It’s what we remember, but we were mistaken. It was actually August 25. The perceptual error becomes part of a key memory.

2) We didn’t notice. If we had been alert, we would have experienced it and remembered, but we didn’t. That information is not recorded in memory, and it subsequently leads to concluding that events transpired in a different manner. To see what I mean, check out this link on YouTube.

3) Memory is malleable. Studies of psychology repeatedly show that our experiences of memory are deceptive. We review them like a videotape of events, but unfortunately they are creative events in our mind that change over time and are subject to various distortions. Quite often people report what they genuinely remember, but what they remember is not what they observed at the time.

4) We favour ourselves. It has been established in at least one empirical study that we construct a version of facts or events that favours us. In conflict, almost necessarily, the two parties’ versions of events will diverge. (Howard Raiffa in Stone, Patten & Heen Difficult Conversations, p. 36)

5) We may misconstrue context. Someone says, “Sue is a diligent person.” Another thinks it is a bold-faced lie because Sue was not diligent in a situation that negatively impacted them.

But, no one is always diligent, or always manifesting any other quality. A typically diligent person will under certain circumstances, such as stress, not be (as) diligent. Conflict often involves situations that deviate from a norm.

6) Lying. Intentional misrepresentation is a very real possibility, but it is one of many. Furthermore, lying can be partial or confounded; for example, someone may hold a false belief due one of the factors above and then lie about the false belief – not making it true, but further complexifying misunderstandings.


When you begin to mentally digest the more than several ways that inaccuracy can be introduced into memory, it is not surprising that people disagree over apparent facts, and that different versions of events emerge. In fact, it is normal, and we should expect it.

We think others are lying because we experience what we believe to be ”the” accurate account of events, but in many situations we don’t possess accuracy any more than they do. Seeking other explanations for ‘lies’ requires consideration and empathy, and in conflict situations we tend to get into a self-serving mood of blaming others.

From now on, when you think someone has lied, or you hear, “She is a liar,” take a moment to consider other possibilities.

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