Wisdom in the News

Are Most People Liars?


Here’s a question – how many lies have you told in the past 24 hours? Got the answer? Now here is a follow-up question. Is your answer higher, lower, or about on par with what you think other people will say about their own lying behavior?

I don’t know what your answer is to the first question. But we do have an answer to what other people say in general. Thanks to pioneering empirical research by Bella DePaulo, it has long been held that the average rate of lying is around 1-2 lies per day. How did you measure up?

In recent years, additional empirical research on lying has painted a fuller picture of our lying behavior. In a study published in 2010, for instance, Kim Serota and his colleagues gave a survey on lying to 1,000 Americans and found the same average again (1.65 lies were told per day). But the distribution of lying across this group was highly skewed. A whopping 59.9% said they didn’t lie at all during the past day. On the flip side, of the total number of lies reported, fully half of them were due to – get this – only 5.3% of participants. This suggests that perhaps most people are remarkably honest when it comes to telling lies, and that most of the lying that goes on is confined to a few bad apples. This would be quite remarkable if it turns out to be true.

But even with this more recent research by Serota and other deception researchers, caution is still needed. After all, much of this research involves administering a survey on one occasion. The researchers do not follow the same people over time to see how their lying varies from day to day and week to week. Hence someone might have said only a few lies on one day, but a bunch the next. Or some might be labeled a prolific liar while just having a “bad lie day.”

Enter a new study by Kim Serota, Timothy Levine, and Tony Docan-Morgan, published in 2021 in the journal Communication Monographs. The main novelty of their approach is that they had the same participants report their lying behavior every day for an entire 3 months. More specifically, they had 632 college students complete a measure of lying once a day for 91 straight days. Usually the daily measure was this:

“In the past 24 h, how many times have you lied? Write in one number for your total lies. If you told no lies, write in ‘0’.”

What did they find?

A lot, and indeed far too much to report here. But these are some of the highlights. First, and consistent with the previous studies, the overall mean was 2.03 lies per day. The lowest number of lies in a day was 0 (no surprise). The highest reported number was 200 (how is that even possible? Was this person lying about his or her number of lies?). In addition, only two participants said that they never lied once during the three months (really? Were they lying about their not lying?).

But what was the benefit of tracking this group of people over time? Well, Serota and his colleagues were able to divide the participants into three groups:

Honest people: 0-2 lies per day

Intermediate liars: 3-5 lies per day

Prolific liars: 6 or more lies per day.

How many participants in the study belonged in each of these groups over the course of the three months? Once again, we see a big skew:

Honest people: 74.7% of participants and 65.8% of the total days the survey was administered.

Intermediate liars: 19.6% of participants and 10.0% of the total days the survey was administered.

Prolific liars: 5.7% of participants and 4.0% of the total days the survey was administered.

It would seem that most people are not prolific liars after all, and that a significant degree of honest behavior is a consistent pattern in their lives that spans months of time.

Now here is a further question. Are people in the ‘honest people’ category telling 0-2 lies every day? Similarly, are people in the ‘prolific liars’ category telling 6+ lies every day?

By tracking the same people over time, Serota could answer these questions. The answer was no. For instance, with the prolific liars, on 5% of their days, they told 0-2 lies. So on those days they were quite honest. And on 25% of their days, they told 3-5 lies. 

The implication is that how much we lie fluctuates from day to day. Hence just learning about how much someone lies on a given day can tell a very incomplete and potentially distorted picture about how honest they tend to be in general. On some days (albeit rarely), a prolific liar can resemble an honest person. And vice versa (albeit even less frequently – the honest group told 6+ lies on less than 1% of the days they were surveyed). As Serota writes, “On any given day not all high-frequency liars are prolific, and those who are prolific do 

not always exhibit prolific lying. Observations of extensive lying on a single day only indicate a prolific liar about one time out of four.”

Serota and his colleges take their findings to support some important conclusions, which they summarize in their own words as follows: 

(a) Lying is infrequent relative to honest communication.

(b) Most people are honest.

(c) The distribution of lying is positively skewed.

(d) Most lies are told by a few prolific liars.

(e) The telling of specific lies is situationally determined.

Let me end by noting a few cautions about their research, which the researchers would likely agree with as well.

First, it is noteworthy that the participants in this study are the usual college student population. They are also Americans. Caution should be used in making any general pronouncements about other groups from such limited data.

Also, it is noteworthy that this is self-report data about lying behavior. Questions remain about how honest participants are about their own dishonest behavior. Plus, even if they are not trying to distort the facts, they may still suffer from faulty recall and miss some of their own lies.

Finally, even if the conclusions are more widely applicable and are accurate reflections of actual lying behavior, they do not let us draw any conclusions about how honest most people are. As I have argued in my own research, honesty is a virtue that pertains to much more than just not telling lies. It also concerns misleading, cheating, stealing, BSing, self-deception, and a host of other behaviors. Not lying is only one piece of the much bigger honesty puzzle.

Nevertheless, results like these emerging from the psychological research on deception are fascinating. It appears for now that we can assume strangers are usually telling us the truth. The challenge then becomes being able to pick out the rare prolific liar from the crowd.

About the author: Christian B Miller-I am is the A.C. Reid Professor of Philosophy at Wake Forest University, where I do research in ethics, moral psychology, and philosophy of religion. I have led projects on character which have received over $10 million in grant funding from the Templeton Foundation, most recently for the Honesty Project. My writings have appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Aeon, and other places, and I have written 5 books and edited 5 more. The Character Gap: How Good Are We? was my first attempt to reach a broader, non-academic audience. The answer? Most of us are pretty much a mixed bag of good and bad. Myself included. Follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn. Check out my website or some of my other work here

Click on the citation to read the original post:

Miller, C. B. (2022, October 17). Are most people liars? Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/christianmiller/2022/10/17/are-most-people-liars/?fbclid=IwAR0i3yanJHKI_usF7-RpZwcIQ1RQp1Fkw5VuaoKHamBO54FrGy2na2Ls7jk&sh=1d7f1719bd58