Who lies? My best guess: Everyone.
That's what my research, and others', suggests. For example, in one set of studies my colleagues and I conducted, two groups of people—77 college students and 70 others—kept diaries every day for a week of all of the lies that they told and all of their social interactions lasting at least 10 minutes. The college students lied in one out of about every three of their social interactions; the other people from the community lied in one of every five. Over the course of the week, only 1% of the college students, and 9% of the people from the community, claimed to have told no lies at all. (Yes, my first thought was, They are lying about not lying.
Even though my best guess is that everyone lies, it is clear that some people tell lies more readily than others. In my diary studies, for instance, the lie-telling "champ" told 46 lies over the course of the week—close to 7 a day. Who are these people who lie much more frequently than the rest of us? I'll set aside the clinically diagnosable in this post, and just consider everyday liars. Do they share certain personality characteristics? Are there gender differences? Does age matter? Is the tendency to tell lots of lies linked to the quality of your relationships?
The Personality of a Liar
In the diary studies, all participants filled out a number of personality measures. We used that information to see if certain personality types are especially prone to tell a lot of lies.
When I posed the question, "Who lies?" did a stereotype pop into your mind? Did you guess that frequent liars are more likely to be manipulative and scheming people as well? If you did, I'm not going to tell you to abandon your preconceived notions: People who are more manipulative (as measured by a Machiavellianism scale and a measure of Social Adroitness) lie more often than people who are less manipulative.
Manipulative people tend to care about themselves, so you might also think that liars are generally people who do not care about other people. But that's not totally true. Frequent liars can also be people who care too much about other people. What they care about, in particular, is what other people think of them. This personality type describes people who are always worrying about the impression they're making on others: What will she think if I say that? Will he think I'm a total loser if I do this? This is the impression-management personality type, and these people tell lots of lies, too. Interestingly, though, these people know that they lie more than others do. That's noteworthy, because like the citizens of Lake Wobegon, the participants in our diary studies believed that, on average, they were above average in honesty.
Guess who else lies more? Extroverts. Here's where it mattered that we kept track of people's social interactions and not just their lies. If we only counted lies, then extroverts would have many more opportunities to lie than introverts, because they spend more time around other people. So instead, we looked at rates of lying—the number of lies people told relative to the number of opportunities they had, and extroverts lied at a higher rate than introverts, although the difference was not substantial.
Why do extroverts tell more lies than introverts? I think it is because the little lies of everyday life can make social interactions run smoothly. Extroverts are versed in social niceties, and practice them so often that they probably do not even realize how often they are lying. In fact, we found some evidence for that among the college students. At the end of the week, when the extroverts saw the total number of lies they had told, they said that they were surprised at how often they had lied. (We don't really know for sure, though, why extraverts lie more, so feel free to share your insights.)
The results for one other personality trait are totally obvious: That trait is responsibility, as measured by a scale of the same name that identifies people who are responsible, honest, ethical, dependable, and reliable. Responsible people were less likely to tell lies than less responsible people—especially the kinds of lies that are self-serving.
Frequent Liars and their Relationships
Participants in the diary studies rated separately the quality of their relationships with people of the same sex as themselves and with people of the other sex. They indicated, for instance, how warm, satisfying, and enduring their relationships tend to be; how much they and their friends understand one another; and the quickness with which they make friends.
People's descriptions of the quality of their relationships with people of the other sex had nothing whatsoever to do with how frequently they lied. It was different for same-sex relationships, though. People who had higher-quality same-sex relationships (not just sexual ones) told fewer lies overall, and especially fewer self-serving lies, than people with same-sex relationships of lower quality.
Men and Women: How Do They Compare as Frequent Liars?
In the broadest strokes—averaging across all kinds of lies—men and women are equals in their proclivity to lie. That's what we found in our diary studies. But when we looked more closely at different kinds of lies and different kinds of targets of lies, that's when the sex differences showed up.
Consider two kinds of lies—self-serving lies and kind-hearted lies:
Self-serving lies are the ones people tell to make themselves look better or to spare themselves from embarrassment, punishment, or blame, or from getting their feelings hurt. You know the kind: You claim to have performed better than you really did or you deny that you did something bad or embarrassing.
Kind-hearted lies are told with the intent of making another person look better or feel better, or to spare them from embarrassment, punishment, or blame, or from getting their feelings hurt.
- "You look great!"
- "What a terrific dinner!"
- "I know just how you feel."
Now consider four different combinations of liars and targets:
- Men lying to men
- Men lying to women
- Women lying to men
- Women lying to women
In three of these combinations, people tell many more self-serving lies than kind-hearted lies. In one of the four, people tell just as many kind-hearted lies as self-serving ones. Which is it? Take a guess, then read on.
Kind-hearted lies are most likely to be exchanged between women. In contrast, when men were involved—either as liars or as targets—self-serving lies prevailed. There were anywhere from twice to eight times as many self-serving lies than kind-hearted lies.
Among Adults, Is Age Linked to Frequent Lying?
In our diary studies, we found that the people we recruited from the community told fewer lies than our college students did. Does that mean that older adults tell fewer lies? Not necessarily; our community sample differed in many other ways from our college students. For example, 81% were employed, and 34% had no more than a high school education.
In a separate study, Serota, Levine, and Boster (2010) asked a national sample of adults how often they had lied in the previous 24 hours. They found that as age increased, the number of lies decreased. However, they did not include a measure of opportunities to lie.
We cannot yet say this for sure, but it is likely that over the course of their adult years, people tell fewer lies. Now it is time to follow the same people for years, and get them to keep recording their lies the whole time.
Good luck with that!
If you are interested in more of the details of the diary studies, you can find the original journal articles in The Lies We Tell and the Clues We Miss. A more reader-friendly version is available in The Hows and Whys of Lies.
[Note: This is one of those posts that has nothing specifically to do with living single. I've been working on an annotated bibliography of the psychological research on deception, and thought some Psychology Today readers might enjoy hearing about a few of the topics I will be covering.]