The truth is, lying is a substantial part of our communication. Most of the lies we tell aren’t major, but little white lies—fibs and exaggerations designed to make us look better or to spare others' feelings—are fairly common. Research examining the frequency of such lies suggests that the average person lies about twice a day.1,2 But of course, if the studies show that people lie twice a day, on average, it could be that many of us rarely lie, but that a few frequent liars are skewing the results.3 It is difficult to accurately assess the true rate of lying. Studies on deception typically ask people to recall their lies over the course of the day, but our memories for the specifics of conversations are rather poor.4
It is also possible that certain communication media lend themselves better to lying, or to certain types of lies. With the advent of technologies like email and text messaging, we can now lie without having to worry about giveaway nonverbal cues. But our lies can also now be recorded for posterity, perhaps making us think twice before texting a falsehood.
A new study by Madeline Smith and colleagues sought to address both of these issues by examining the frequency of lying in text messages, using actual text content instead of relying on people’s memories of their conversations.5
In their study, 164 university students were asked to examine their most recent text messages to two people of their choosing. Participants were asked to enter into an online survey the exact content of the last 15 texts they had sent to each of those individuals. For each message, they were asked to rate the extent to which the message was deceptive, and, if it was deceptive, to explain why.
The results showed that about 11% of all text messages sent were deceptive—but 23% of the subjects in the study reported sending no deceptive messages at all. Among those who lied, most did so infrequently. However, a few participants (five, to be exact) were prolific prevaricators, lying in nearly half their messages.
What sort of things were people lying about in these text messages? Hancock and colleagues have suggested that text messages, because they frequently involve the coordination of social plans, may be especially prone to what they call a “butler lie," a type of deception used to negotiate social interactions.6 For example, a person who is running late may claim to have left home already when she hasn’t, or may claim to be stuck in traffic. A man might text his wife that he’s still finishing up work at the office, when he’s actually socializing with co-workers. Consistent with this theory, participants in the study reported significantly more “butler lies” than in similar samples of participants in studies of face-to-face and telephone lying.
Of course, text messages (Snapchat and its competitors aside) leave a written record, so overt lying might be seen as risky. If a husband says he’s at work when he’s really at a bar with friends, and someone spots him enjoying his beer, he will be caught in a lie. So lies told with text messages tend to be vague, and include exaggerations or omissions, rather than outright untruths.5 For example, you might claim to be running 10 minutes late when it’s really 20, or you may text your girlfriend that you’re out with friends, but fail to mention that your ex-girlfriend is among the crowd. Smith and colleagues’ results also showed that lies told via text were significantly subtler than lies told by participants in studies examining telephone and in-person lies.
These results suggest that most of us do lie a little bit as part of our everyday communication. And it is likely that, in this study, the total number of lies was underestimated, since it represented only a fraction of participants’ actual texting activity, and texting represented only a fraction of their social interactions. But while most of us lie with moderate frequency, it is also true that a small minority of us may lie with incredibly high frequency.
These results suggest that the constant ability of others to monitor us via text communication may cause us to be less than completely honest about our whereabouts.
Gwendolyn Seidman, Ph.D. is an associate professor of psychology at Albright College, who studies relationships and cyberpsychology. Follow her on Twitter for updates about social psychology, relationships, and online behavior.
1 DePaulo, B. M., Kashy, D. A., Kirkendol, S. E., Wyer, M. M., & Epstein, J. A. (1996).Lying in everyday life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70(5), 979–995.
2 Hancock, J., Thom-Santelli, J., & Ritchie, T. (2004). Deception and design: The impact of communication technology on lying behavior. Proceedings of CHI, 129–134.
3 Serota, K. B., Levine, T. R., & Boster, F. J. (2010). The prevalence of lying in America: Three studies of self-reported lies. Human Communication Research, 36(1), 2–25.
4 Stafford, L., & Daly, J. A. (1984). Conversational memory. Human Communication Research, 10(3), 379–402.
5 Smith, M. E., Hancock, J. T., Reynolds, L., & Birnholtz, J. (2014). Everyday deception or a few prolific liars? The prevalence of lies in text messaging. Computers in Human Behavior, 41, 220–227.
6 Hancock, J., Birnholtz, J., Bazarova, N., Guillory, J., Perlin, J., & Amos, B. (2009). Butler lies: Awareness, deception and design. Proceedings of CHI, 517–526.