Why You Should Believe Liars When They Say They’re Lying

December 13, 2013

TIME Magazine

It’s because a new study shows that people — including liars — are more honest than you think.Researchers from the University of Amsterdam and Ben-Gurion University asked 527 Dutch students—as part of a battery of psychology tests—how often they had told a lie in the past 24 hours. Forty one percent said they had told none, 51% reported one to five fibs, and 8% said they’d told 6 or more.

But the scientists also broke down who was doing the lying; previous research tended to average people’s reports of mendacity, which suggested that almost everyone lies regularly as a part of normal social interaction. However, in the current analysis, the scientific team found that only 5% of the people told 40% of the lies reported.

The researchers were also able to identify the kind of people most likely to lie. Not surprisingly, frequent fabricators scored higher on a continuum of personality traits associated with psychopathic tendencies like grandiosity, thrill-seeking and manipulation.

To delve deeper into lying patterns, the scientists also conducted two follow-up tests, in which a subset of the original group was given an opportunity to lie—without fear of discovery— in order to make more money. In one test, the participants were asked to roll a die repeatedly under a paper cup and report the total score. Only they could see the number, and the higher their score, the more they’d be paid. In a second test, they were asked how many word puzzles they had solved successfully, and again, they were paid more for higher scores. The examiners had no way to verify their results, but they did include certain unsolvable words.

So while the investigators could not be absolutely sure who cheated on the first test, they were pretty sure that some of participants lied, since there was no statistically possible way they could achieve some of the high scores they reported given the number of unsolvable words thrown in. “The interesting thing was,” says study co-author Shaul Shalvi, a psychology professor at the University of the Negev, “that the more people reported they lied in the last 24 hours, the higher their reported die roll outcomes were.“

The conclusion? Liars lie, but most of us don’t. That should make us feel better, but not everyone is so willing to accept that people are more truthful than we think. Forensic psychiatrist Carole Lieberman, for example, says the sample was skewed in various ways and not representative — the group included more women than men, for instance, and women may be more likely to want to please the examiners and therefore report truthful scores. Moreover, based on her experience testifying on trial witnesses’ credibility, she questions the conclusion that most people don’t lie most of the time.  “Over the past 20 years,” she says, “people are showing a greater tendency to lie than ever before.”

In addition, says Robert Giacalone, who holds the Daniels Chair in Business Ethics at the University of Denver, the study looked at a very narrow definition of lying. “The premise that people don’t lie a lot, I think, ” he says, “is false.” The research on “impression management” indicates that most people distort the truth, often without admitting to themselves they are doing it. Beginning with their parents, he says, “Kids are told to put their best foot forward,” whether on a job interview or a first date. Whether they tell outright falsehoods, omit or spin important facts, they are trying to mislead or deceive. In the study, he says, people may well under report their lying.

But whether you believe people are more or less truthful, at least there’s this — when liars say they’re lying, at least they’re being honest.