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Are Most People Liars?

New research suggests the answer is no.

Key points

  • Previous research found the average rate of lying to be around 1-2 lies per day.
  • Recent research has found that the distribution of lying is highly skewed.
  • Only 5.7 percent of the participants in a recent study were prolific liars.
Theodore Palser/PublicDomainPictures
Source: Theodore Palser/PublicDomainPictures

Here’s a question: How many lies have you told in the past 24 hours? Got the answer? Now here's 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 percent said they didn’t lie at all during the past day. On the flip side, of the total number of lies reported, fully half were told by—get this—only 5.3 percent of participants. This suggests that perhaps most people are remarkably honest, at least 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 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 told 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 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 a full three 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 hrs, 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 zero, of course, but the highest reported number was 200. (How is that even possible? Was this person lying about their number of lies?) In addition, only two participants said that they never lied once during the three months. (Were they lying about 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 to each of these groups over the course of the three months? Once again, we see a big skew:

  • Honest people: 74.7 percent of participants, and 65.8 percent of the total days the survey was administered.
  • Intermediate liars: 19.6 percent of participants, and 10.0 percent of the total days the survey was administered.
  • Prolific liars: 5.7 percent of participants, and 4.0 percent 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-plus lies every day?

By tracking the same people over time, Serota could answer these questions. The answer was no. For instance, among prolific liars, on 5 percent of their days, they told 0-2 lies. So on those days, they were quite honest. And on 25 percent 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 give an incomplete and potentially distorted picture of 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: People in the honest group told 6-plus lies on less than 1 percent 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 colleagues take their findings to support some important conclusions, which they summarize in their own words as follows:

  • Lying is infrequent relative to honest communication.
  • Most people are honest.
  • The distribution of lying is positively skewed.
  • Most lies are told by a few prolific liars.
  • 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 a much bigger honesty puzzle.

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

References

Kim B. Serota, Timothy R. Levine & Tony Docan-Morgan (2022) Unpacking variation in lie prevalence: Prolific liars, bad lie days, or both?, Communication Monographs, 89:3, 307-331, DOI: 10.1080/03637751.2021.1985153.

An earlier version of this article appears in Forbes here.

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