How Much Lying Is Too Much?
Most people are a little dishonest sometimes, but how much lying is excessive?
Posted May 03, 2020
At some point, haven’t we all told a little white lie to spare someone’s feelings, exaggerated our feelings about something, minimized some ugly truth about ourselves, or told a lie to escape punishment or to gain an advantage? In surveys about lying, almost all people report that at some point they have lied. If everyone lies at some point, then why don’t we call everyone a liar?
How many lies must someone tell per day for you to think of them as a big liar? I’d love to get your opinion on that number. Here is a link to a two-question, 15-second survey where you can offer your opinion. I’ll share the results of everyone’s opinions in one of my next entries on this blog.
I suspect for most of us, we consider a certain small amount of deception to be expected. We see it as typical or normal for people to mislead as part of a negotiation strategy. We expect people to provide a white lie to get out of an unwanted social invitation rather than truthfully saying that the event sounds boring. But how much lying is too much?
Researchers have found that almost all of us like to see ourselves as honest, and we actively minimize our dishonesty. We all probably have an internal gauge about honesty, both our own truthfulness and that of others. When we see others tell a little fib here or engage in a little misdirection there, it doesn’t strike us as strange.
But in some cases we people crossing a threshold. We see their lies as moving far beyond the realm of normality. We begin to attach labels to them such as “liar.” If their lies are shockingly frequent or damaging, we might even refer to them as big liars, habitual liars, compulsive liars, or pathological liars.
Over the past 25 years, a number of studies have found that, on average, people tell a very small number of lies per day. When those data are examined more closely though, we find that many people don’t lie at all, while some people tell a shockingly high amount of lies each day. So, most of us, as it turns out, are pretty honest folks, but there is a small handful that does most of the lying in our world.
I am curious about these “big liars” in our world. Big liars take advantage of the mostly honest members of society, using guile and deceit to take advantage. Big liars in politics mislead the populous into supporting questionable policies. Big liars in business use deception to bilk investors or gullible customers out of their hard-earned cash. Big liars in the workplace use lies to gain advantages over us while concealing their shortcomings. And big liars in relationships use their dishonesty to take advantage of our compassion, devotion, and resources, all while selfishly serving only themselves. Big liars are toxic operators that taint the mostly honest world with their treachery.
Once we agree on how much lying is too much, we can start to study and understand those big liars. In my recent research, I’ve investigated the psychological traits of people who tend to lie a lot. One common trait is that big liars tend to view lying as acceptable. They see deception as not particularly immoral. They also don’t think lying is very harmful to others. Big liars tend to be less responsible and dependable. They also have dispositions that make them less warm and supportive of others. Interestingly, one of the traits that most strongly predict who is a big liar is self-esteem. People who lie a lot tend to have much lower self-esteem than honest people. It is unclear whether their lying is driven by their low self-esteem or is a result of it.
People’s tendency to tell a lot of lies is also driven by their environment and circumstances. Children who see their parents deceiving a lot tend to follow in those footsteps, becoming frequent liars themselves. Also, when people are placed in situations in which punitive authority figures rule, they are much more likely to lie in order to avoid harsh punishment.
Heavy amounts of lying can be associated with several psychiatric disorders, but for the most part, big liars are people who have not been formally diagnosed with any particular condition. It’s as if they are pretty normal people who simply have a different strategy for navigating life.
Future research on big liars will help elucidate the problem of these rare super-deceivers among us. Perhaps the insights we gain will allow us to redirect them at an early age to a more honest social style, saving the rest of us the damage and heartache that big liars leave in their wake.