Impression Management and Self-presentation: The Psychology of Faking Good

Psychology 101: The 101 Ideas, Concepts and Theories that Have Shaped Our World - Adrian Furnham 2021

Impression Management and Self-presentation: The Psychology of Faking Good

It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. (Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1880)

There is no trusting in appearances. (Richard Sheridan, The School for Scandal, 1800)

Appearances are not held to be a clue to the truth. But we seem to have no other. (Ivy Compton-Burnett, Manservant and Maidservant, 1947)

Some people argue that psychological tests are a complete waste of time because everyone ’fakes good’. The same may be true of interviews. The idea is often called impression management, which essentially means presenting oneself in a very positive (and not always accurate) light. In effect it means lying or not telling the truth.

Test publishers have various ways to try to catch fakers and liars. One is simply to tell them to be truthful. The second is to have a lie scale in the questionnaire like ’Do you always wash your hands before a meal?’ or ’Have you ever been late for an appointment?’. Once the candidates score goes above a certain threshold they are assumed to be lying on all questions and rejected. The third method is to tell people to lie, to fake good, so you have the template of a liar. If the candidate has a similar template this warrants further investigation. Fourth, it is possible to use ipsative tests whereby people have to choose between two equally positive (’I often take work home’; ’I am always on time’) or negative (’I have stolen office stationery’; ’Not all my claim forms are accurate’) statements.

Some people are self-delusional and tell lies because they are not self-aware.

Max Eggert, an expert on selection, has argued that there are many different types of lies. They make a good checklist for the potential interviewer.

White Lies: These are found in the ’puff’ statement some people are encouraged to write on their CV. ’I am a totally committed team player.’ ’I have excellent social skills and the ability to read people.’ ’I am utterly trustworthy and loyal.’

Altruistic Lies: These are lies that attempt a cover-up, but look as if they are helping others. So rather than say they left their last job because their manager was a bully, or the company was patently dodgy, people say they resigned to look for new challenges.

Lies of Omission: People might omit details of school or university grades because they had poor marks. Whole periods of their life are obfuscated.

Defensive Lies: The defensive lie is one that conceals by generalizations or vagaries. Ask a person about their previous boss’s management style, their reason for leaving or their health record and you are often faced with a string of vague expressions such as ’like others in the company’, ’much the same as my co-workers’, ’at that time’.

Impersonation Lies: This is also called the transfer lie and occurs mostly where people take credit for others’ work.

Embedded Lies: This is a clever subterfuge to confuse the interviewer. The idea is to suggest that an experience, qualification or achievement was very different from the actuality. ’It was good fun being with the BBC/CNN’ could mean practically anything from ’I once went to a show there’ to ’They filmed at my school.’

Errors of commission or fact: They are explicit, verifiably, false claims. It is about claiming qualifications you don’t have; starting up or working for companies that never existed, skills that don’t exist. It is the most blatant form of lie.

Definition Lies: This approach involves working with a very specific and obscure definition so that for all intents and purposes you are telling the truth.

Proxy Lies: This is where the candidates get others to lie for them. It is usually referees but could be former teachers. They may skilfully work on their previous employers’ poor memory, vanity or other bribes to persuade them to obfuscate.

Usually lying in interviews can be hard work. Lying is difficult and demanding because you have to do several things at the same time:

1 You have to get the story right: it must be plausible and consistent with all known (revealed and revealable) facts.

2 You have to memorize the story well so that you are completely consistent in re-telling it many times while possibly being recorded.

3 You have to scrutinize your interviewers to ensure they are swallowing the bait.

4 You have to memorize the script and also perform: the emotions displayed need to match the story.

5 In addition to remembering the script you have also to repress or suppress memories of the actual occurrence.

So it takes a good memory, acting skills, emotional intelligence and sheer effort to tell a good and complicated lie (many times) convincingly and get away with it.

Experts suggest adhering to the following guide in order to root out liars:

1 Tell the Story in Reverse Order. It’s not that easy to do, but much easier if the story has not been fabricated. Sequences are not always well thought-through by liars and the fumbling-bumbling can soon be spotted.

2 Maintain Eye Contact in the Telling. Liars have to concentrate inwards. Maintaining eye contact is very difficult if you are trying to remember your lines.

Using Unanticipated Questions. Liars are sensitive to saying ’I do not recall/remember/ know.’ It sounds fishy. So they learn to give plausible answers. So ask questions they don’t expect and ask them more than once.

3 Devil’s Advocate. A lot of lies are about opinions and beliefs. Good liars are usually able to articulate a clear ideological position. So ask them to be the devil’s advocate, in effect providing their true opinions about an issue. Liars are faster at this and give richer, more complex answers than those who are telling the truth.

4 Strategic Questioning. Most liars have to do avoidance and denial. They need a number of strategies to avoid having to admit or describe true events as well as denial strategies. Innocent people say more, fearing interviewers do not have all the facts; guilty people say less for fear of incrimination. So clever interviewers ask open and then closed questions. Innocent people are more likely spontaneously to offer facts than liars.


Eggert, M. (2007). The Perfect Interview. London: Random House.

Ekman, P. (1985). Telling Lies. New York: W. W. Norton.