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The Real Truth About Lying

Reports on the psychology of lying. Study by psychologist and lying expert Bella DePaulo; Benefits of lying; Prevalence of lying among community members and students.

Occasionally, a student of psychologist and lying expert Bella DePaulo,Ph.D., will insist that he or she can be entirely truthful for three or four weeks. But no one ever succeeds.

"Everyday lies are really part of the fabric of social life," says DePaulo, a professor at the University of Virginia. While some lies damage relationships and destroy trust, other fibs fulfill important interpersonal functions, like smoothing over awkward situations or protecting fragile egos.

But how often do people lie, and when do they do it? To find out, DePaulo and colleagues asked 77 college students and 70 community members to keep a diary detailing each lie they told. The students, it turned out, admitted to lying an average of twice a day, while local residents lied half as often. Among the study's other findings:

o Community members lied in one-fifth of their social interactions; students, one-third.

o Lying was more common in phone calls than in face-to-face chats.

o One lie in seven was discovered--as far as the liars could tell.

o A tenth of the lies were merely exaggerations, while 60 percent were outright deceptions. Most of the rest were subtle lies, often of mission: "He and I discussed sex acts that I had performed, but he assumed they had been performed with a woman."

o More than 70 percent of liars would tell their lies again.