With Lance Armstrong’s public confession, the idea of lying is getting a lot of coverage. Clearly the guy is no paragon of virtue. But the truth is, we all lie.

Doubt it? Here’s a quote from an article in the LA Times:

“People do it because it works,” said Robert Feldman, dean of social and behavioral sciences at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and a leading researcher on the psychology of lying. “We get away with lies all the time. Usually they’re minor: ‘I love your tie.’ ‘You did a great job.’ But in some cases they’re bigger.”

According to Feldman’s 2002 study published in Basic and Applied Social Psychology, during a short conversation between two strangers 60% lied at least once, and the average was 2-3 lies per liar. In 10 minutes!

We rationalize, we feel guilty, we justify it, but we all do it. A lot. Men tend to lie to make themselves feel more comfortable during social interaction. Women do it, too, but often their purpose is to make the person they’re conversing with more comfortable.

The biggest liars

Perhaps shockingly to us designers and writers, you know who lies most? Creative people. It turns out that the more creative you are, the easier it is to lie. And “regular” people who are simply urged to be creative also increase their propensity and ability to lie. It’s directly related.

Why? Because imagination and lying are basically the same function of the human psyche.

When small children tell a lie, they’ll often convince themselves that what they are saying is real. Teaching them the difference between what’s made up and what’s not is a challenge parents know well. But kids’ prevarication is a way of exercising their imagination in order to try to change their parents’ minds and get them to look at a subject a different way. Which is essentially what we do in  design, advertising and marketing.

That flexibility and creativity is exactly what marketers seek. We want to present the “facts” in the best light possible to have our audience look favorably upon our client’s products or services. It’s kind of manipulative and controlling. But it’s also completely natural and human.

And there’s a huge upside to all this: envisioning a better future and creating something wonderful.

When Steve Jobs imagined a world where computers were friendly and usable, it was a lie that he told himself — until he and everyone around  his “reality distortion field” believed it. When Thomas Edison imagined motion pictures, it was a lie. There was no such thing. At least, not yet. Movies themselves are lies. Novels are lies. Beautiful photographs are lies. And so are ugly ones.

Everyone imagines first

We are strange creatures who live largely in our thoughts and our imaginations. We envision things and then we create them. Even people who aren’t “creative” do that. It’s the only way anything ever happens. It’s how a piece of wood and a rope turn into a swing. It’s how sugar and flour become a cake.

It seems that we are natural “liars”. And, like almost anything we humans do, lying can be a force for good. So go tell yourself a lie. A great big, beautiful, visionary one. But pay attention to when and why you’re doing it. With great power comes great responsibility.

Lie well.