Truth Is . . . Lying Makes You Sick

Given the “climate” in the United States . . . and parts of the world . . . this study on lying is fascinating.

Most people lie because they are trying to:

  • sidestep something uncomfortable 
  • feel better about themselves
  • impress someone
  • escape punishment or other negative consequences
  • or, so no one will be mad at them

Pinocchio Knows by Peggy

New research

Avoidance of the truth can be hazardous to our health. “When people lie, they are more prone to feeling anxious or blue, and to experiencing frequent headaches, runny noses, bouts of diarrhea and back pain. When people change their ways and start telling the truth more often, however, they can improve both their mental and physical health, says University of Notre Dame psychology professor Anita Kelly, lead author of a new study on the effects of lying.”

“The Notre Dame study looked at 110 people, ranging in age from 18 to 71, over a period of 10 weeks. Half the participants agreed to try to stop telling lies (both major and minor) for the duration of the test. The other half received no special instructions. Subjects took weekly polygraph tests to assess the number and type of lies they had told in the previous week. “Those who were instructed to dramatically reduce lies experienced significantly better health than those in the group that continued to lie,” Kelly says.”

“Her team found that participants who began telling the truth more often experienced 54 percent fewer mental health complaints (such as anxiety or feeling blue) over the course of the study, and 56 percent fewer physical health complaints (such as nausea or headaches). Subjects who began telling the truth more often also reported happier relationships and improved social interactions.”

Surprisingly, the “size” of a lie doesn’t appear to have much impact on its health effects, Kelly says. Both minor lies, like telling a friend you can’t meet for coffee because you “have to work,” and big lies, such as claiming false credentials in a job interview, can negatively affect your health.

“Both white and major lies can be problematic,” she says, “because they can both cause the person to be seen as a liar. Both can violate expectations of honesty in a relationship.” And all of that leads to feelings of anxiety and guilt.

Why Lying Makes You Sick

Because you know it’s wrong to lie, doing so “goes against what you deem as ‘right,’ and builds anxiety,” Walfish says. The anxiety just increases as you try to keep from being caught. “A person who lies doesn’t want to be found out. They want the whole thing to go away,” she says.

“As a result of all that guilt, or related anxiety and stress, you begin to physically feel the effects of the lies,” says Reef Karim, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience. “There’s definitely a connection.” Your immune system could become compromised because your body is stressed, making it harder to fight off colds and flus. “For some, it’s an immediate effect,” Karim notes. “For others it’s a slow build of physical problems, like headaches.”


The level of guilt you feel about your lies is a crucial factor in how much they’ll affect your body. “The more guilt or anxiety you feel,” Karim says, “the more physical and mental symptoms you’re going to experience.”

The Power of Telling the Truth 

“Just as you try to eat well and get regular exercise to maintain your overall health, experts say, you need to develop the healthy habit of telling the truth. “People need to experience the feeling of freedom and strength derived from telling the truth in difficult situations,” Walfish says. “Taking the leap of faith and telling the truth — regardless of the outcome — is a wonderful feeling of power. You feel you can handle anything.”‘

And that’s the truth.

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7 comments on “Truth Is . . . Lying Makes You Sick

  1. Hello Judy-Judith,

    This is one of my favourite topics (not least because I spent 20 years of my life living with a person who couldn’t help himself: he’d lie about everything, but not only that, he was the absolute WORST liar ever, so everybody could always tell he was lying! One of my favourite examples of a typical dinner conversation conversation with my (now ex) husband:

    Me: “Did you call Larry today to ask him about that issue we’d been talking about?”
    Hubby: “Um……. oh…… ah….. YES! Yes, I did….”
    Me: “Oh good, what did he say?”
    H: “Um……. oh…… ah….. He wasn’t there. Yeah, that’s it….. Um……. oh…… ah….. He wasn’t there so… so I left a message…”

    Me: (a few days later): “Did Larry ever get back to you after you left that message?”
    H: “Um……. oh…… ah…..YES! Yes, he did but…. Um……. oh…… ah….. He’s OUT OF TOWN! Yeah, that’s it…. He’s out of town for several weeks!”

    Me: (at the coffee shop on the following day): “Oh, hi Larry!! What a surprise to see you here! H. has been trying to get in touch with you for days. But I thought you were out of town for several weeks!?”
    Larry: “No way! I’m in the middle of an overdue project that’s going to keep me chained to the office working 24/7 for the next week!!”)

    Me: (at dinner, that same day): “Guess who I ran into today?”
    H. “Who?”
    Me: “Larry!”

    **** Long excruciating pause, watching the beads of sweat appear on Hubby’s forehead ….

    H: (finally!) “He’s back ALREADY?!?!”

    All of these episodes (there were hundreds, maybe thousands!) could have easily been avoided if the first question had simply been answered honestly (“Did you call Larry today?” – “No, I was really busy all day and just didn’t get around to it…”)

    But because he seemed physically unable to just tell the truth no matter what, whether it was an insignificant or an important matter, almost every day, several times a day, we’d have to go through crazy-making conversations like this!

    I wonder if researchers look at the health effects of spouses of liars – the ones who’s been pulling their hair out for decades?!?!


    Liked by 1 person

    • Carolyn! Oh my goodness – your dialogue is perfect and .. . . perfectly horrible. Yes, there’s research on the health of spouses/partners – it’s based more on the chronic stress of not being able to trust than specifically on lying (at least to my knowledge).

      The health consequences of living in a state of mis-trust and trying to protect (consciously or unconsciously) oneself from possible harm are dire. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that didn’t impact your heart and subsequent heart-attack. (There’s a powerful metaphor in that which I won’t get into but you undoubtedly understand).

      People who are chronic liars are usually of two sorts:
      They learned in childhood that was the only way they had to protect themselves from harm. Harm comes in a variety of forms and they lose the ability to distinguish real harm from perceived harm and lying becomes a default mode. They are generally on the anxiety spectrum of psychological conditions.

      Others are narcissists at best or sociopaths at worst. It becomes a manipulation to get what they want. Research indicates that both narcissism and socio-pathology are brains that are not working properly. I don’t want to dismiss the severity of these two conditions but I think that ultimately research will clearly identify what areas of the brain are under developed and the pathways that are impacted.

      Obviously there are other factors but since I’m not an expert that’s my limited understanding.

      Thanks for the timely, interesting and very personal sharing. I LOVE YOU.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. That’s a very interesting post and study, Judy. My first thought was that of course lying is bad for your health and immune system as it creates quite a lot of stress. But Shari’s insightful comment made me realize that we need to differentiate all possible reasons for lying. In her case it was indeed the best thing she could do. If we must lie to prevent harm in others, it seems more appropriate than for our own selves.
    I think such a study like from Notre Dame needs to include this form of data as well.

    In the other hand – I was thinking how many liars must be around me, what with all those runny noses. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sarah,
      It is always difficult to predict what might harm in the short run, the long run. In the last days of my father’s life he was delusional and no matter what I told him or tried to explain he was unable to comprehend so I learned to respond by validating his feelings, not his delusion. In my training I learned that you can validate someone else’s perception, even if you disagree, without lying. Sometimes when we think we should protect others it is based on our own fears or need to be “liked” etc. I try to always say the truth and when someone doesn’t want to hear the truth I opt to just listen or wait for a time when they are receptive (which may never come).

      Liked by 2 people

      • That sounds like a very sensible thing you did with your father, Judy. Validating other people´s feelings and opinions, especially when they´re contrary what you feel and think, is something more people should learn about. But nowadays it seems kind of old-fashioned to care about anything but yourself… 😦

        Liked by 2 people

  3. I don’t agree with all these findings. Certainly, we should be truthful in how we conduct our lives, especially in interviews and regarding our personal history, but sometimes telling the truth does great harm to the person listening. I think the outcome of fibs and lies should be carefully considered.

    For example: my mother suffered with Alzheimer’s disease the last 18 years of her life. During one crucial incident, when she had a major health crisis, she asked if her husband knew about it. Without thinking, I said that she knew he was dead (had been for 8 years.) Of course I shouldn’t have said that though it was true. She got hysterical, not good for her considering her body was already in stress mode. I quickly backtracked and told her he was at work and would come to see her as soon as he could. She asked the same question multiple times over the next hours and I gave her the answer that made her feel calmer – the lie.

    I can think of so many other situations when making a statement that isn’t quite true might have benefits beyond the moment. How we couch our comments may help to deflect some uncomfortable, complex situations but sometimes saying (or writing) an untrue statement is the best solution. If the truth is going to make someone crumple with despair, what’s the purpose in saying it in the first place?

    Lying for self gain is likely to result in poor health and other negative outcomes, but the Notre Dame study is just too broad and general an assertion to be helpful to most people. We must do the least harm to others.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Shari,
      Very thought provoking comment. I think your example of your mother was excellent. Her comprehension, based on her response, was severely impaired. Under those circumstances telling a lie seems to have been appropriate.
      I believe that in other situations, when there’s no physical or neurological impairment, truth is both moral and spiritual. There are ways of responding that are often difficult to think of at the time without lying.

      It would be interesting to hear what others think.


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