Why do we lie? More operant conditioning examples

1 0 3,981

National Geographic gives you 8 different scenarios in which you have (hypothetically) lied. Choose the most likely reason you lied. As a research methods booster have students discuss the validity of this measure – a measure that has not been used in formal research to the best of my knowledge.

The basis for this quiz was recent research on lying. Communication Studies professor Timothy Levine and colleagues (2016) asked participants from five countries to recall a recent occasion when the participants had lied and then write about what took place. Trained coders read the accounts and categorized the motivation for lying. Levine, et.al. found that the most common reason was lying to gain something (45%) – to reap financial benefits (16%), to reap non-financial benefits (15%), to make a good impression (8%), to be humorous (5%). Another 36% lied for self-protection; 22% did so because of a personal transgression and another 14% did so to dodge people they didn’t want to interact with. The least common type of lying (11%) was designed to affect others in some way – to help them (5%), to hurt them (4%), to be polite (2%). Some lying appeared to be “without apparent motive or purpose, lies out of obvious delusion, or lying with blatant disregard for reality and detection consequences” (2%). The remaining 7% of participants didn’t give enough information to code the motive (5%) or the motive didn’t fit one of these categories (2%).  

After covering operant conditioning, have students work in pairs or small group to identify if the teller of each of these kind of lies has been positively reinforced, negatively reinforced, positively punished, or negatively punished. Ask students to assume that the person has told this kind of lie before; perhaps this person has told this kind of lie many times before.

Lied to cover up a personal transgression, e.g. lied to keep an affair from becoming public

Lied to avoid someone, e.g., lied to get off the phone with someone you don’t want to talk to

Lied for financial gain, e.g., lied on a tax return to get a bigger tax refund

Lied for non-monetary benefits, e.g., lied to get people to vote for you

Lied to make a good impression, e.g., lied on an online dating profile so people will view you as very attractive

Lied to be polite, e.g., lied about liking someone’s shirt to avoid making the person feel bad

After students have completed their discussion and if you use an audience response system, ask students to click in to vote for the type of operant conditioning associated with each kind of lie. Walk students through thinking about each type of lie to identify its type of reinforcement.

This short activity will help students see that our behavior is often reinforced in unintended ways.


Levine, T. R., Ali, M. V., Dean, M., Abdulla, R. A., & Garcia-Ruano, K. (2016). Toward a Pan-cultural Typology of Deception Motives. Journal of Intercultural Communication Research, 45(1), 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1080/17475759.2015.1137079

Tags (1)
About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology since 1992. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award. She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed. and is co-author with Charles Stangor on Introduction to Psychology, 4.0.