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What would you do if a co-worker or friend asked you how much money you make? You might feel awkward and freeze; or perhaps you would happily share the information and ask them to disclose as well.

Or, maybe you would lie.

According to a Ustats survey commissioned by BonusFinder Canada, a source for online gambling bonuses, more than half of Canadians (55.6 per cent) have lied about their salary, with people living in Ottawa coming in as the biggest culprits.

Lying in general is pretty common; A 2002 study by the University Of Massachusetts found that 60 per cent of people lied at least once during a 10-minute conversation, and told an average of two to three lies.

Workplace mental health expert, Dr. Bill Howatt, says lying is common, but why people lie isn’t always simple.

Why people lie

“People who consciously lie, often do so because their current reality is not perceived as being convenient or adequate to achieve their desired outcome for the current situation,” says Dr. Howatt, who has a postdoctorate in behavioural science and has experience working in forensics, where he evaluated deception for many years.

In the Ustats survey, 38 per cent have said their salary is lower than it is and 28 per cent have inflated their salary. The top reasons people said for saying a salary is lower are to avoid jealousy and resentment, maintaining privacy and equalizing relationships. The top reasons for inflating a salary are negotiating leverage, social status and image and family and social expectations.

Dr. Howatt says people are motivated to inflate their salaries in particular because money is deeply tied to our status.

On the flip side, people can be motivated to deflate their salaries, “so no one feels bad about it, or to protect themselves,” he says.

“Where lying gets interesting, in my opinion, is that most people think lying is about deception and being bad,” Dr. Howatt says. “Sometimes lying is about trying to validate being good enough.”

He says people often have a mental model of who they want to be – a high-earning executive, the perfect spouse, someone who works out every day – but that does not always align with who we are in reality. It can lead to people telling stories that aren’t true and lying can also be partly subconscious.

“There are many different motivations for why people lie. Self-esteem is a big one,” he says.

Dr. Howatt says that based on the thousands of Canadians he presents to each year, the average person is sitting at five out of 10 when it comes to their self-esteem.

He says that because “fives don’t want to become fours,” many people are focused on protecting their egos, which can drive people to do things, like lie, to fit in or seem more attractive to others.

How the workplace can breed lying

Dr. Howatt says there are a few different reasons why people may be more inclined to lie at work, one being a competitive environment.

One example of this is what happened at Wells Fargo. The company put so much pressure on their sales team to increase revenue that they got caught in a scandal when it was revealed workers had created millions of savings and chequing accounts for customers without their knowledge or consent.

Dr. Howatt says another reason people may lie is fear. At work, many people do not feel psychologically safe, and there can be issues with oppression and marginalization.

“Some people tell stories for fear that they’ll be excluded, not good enough or isolated. That doesn’t mean they’re trying to do anything bad or hurt anybody, they’re trying to fit into the club – and society is a club,” he says.

Getting comfortable with the truth

Dr. Howatt says we have been through some massive societal shifts that have changed the way people relate to each other and the way we see ourselves, which can affect the drive to lie.

He says many people lack a sense of community that was more apparent a few decades ago.

“There were pillars in your community to define the value of community and the value of helping others,” he says.

As people become more disconnected to their peers, along with the impact of the pandemic and economic uncertainty, they also become more individualistic.

Along with that, Dr. Howatt says more people today are lacking purpose. It can be frightening to reflect on what “good” means to you, and to define what you want your life to look like, when you’re busy avoiding tough emotions or triggering events in the media, and just trying to get through the week.

“Getting people more comfortable with the truth is to become more comfortable with what a good life means to them,” he says.

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