How Often Do People Lie in Their Daily Lives?
The Pinocchio Effect: Lying in daily life.
Posted Nov 30, 2011
One element of social intelligence is the capacity to be Machiavellian (see Byrne & Whiten, 1988; Whiten & Byrne, 1997; Wilson, Near, & Miller, 1996), which results in an evolutionary arms race between the capacity for improved deception (without being detected) whilst being able to detect deception in others. Incidentally, the great evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers argues that self-deception has evolved as a means of navigating the minefield of deceiving others. Specifically, he proposes that self-deception permits an individual to better deceive others, as overt signals of the Machiavellian intent are less likely to manifest themselves in the deceiver. (See his recent book The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life. I also cover these issues in greater detail in my 2007 academic book The Evolutionary Bases of Consumption.)
The human proclivity to deceive and lie is captured in countless cultural products. Songs about lying include "Love the Way You Lie" (Eminem featuring Rihanna), "Little Lies" (Fleetwood Mac), "Lie to Me" (Depeche Mode), "Lies" (Thompson Twins), and "Honesty" by Billy Joel. Movies that tackle lying include True Lies, Liar Liar, and The Invention of Lying. When it comes to religion, the Bible contains several admonitions against lying including the ninth commandment "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor" and Proverbs 6: 16-19 (King James Version) where God's antipathy toward liars is made abundantly clear:
"These six things doth the LORD hate: yea, seven are an abomination unto him:
A proud look, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood,
An heart that deviseth wicked imaginations, feet that be swift in running to mischief,
A false witness that speaketh lies, and he that soweth discord among brethren."
This leads to the all-important question: how often do people lie in their daily lives? In a paper published in 2010 in Human Communication Research, Kim B. Serota, Timothy R. Levine, Franklin J. Boster tackled this exact issue in three separate studies. For the purposes of this post, I'll restrict my discussion to study 1, which utilized an online survey of 1,000 Americans via the Synovate eNation =omnibus panel. Participants were provided with the following description of what might constitute lying:
"We are interested in truth and lies in people's everyday communication. Most people think a lie occurs any time you intentionally try to mislead someone. Some lies are big while others are small; some are completely false statements and others are truths with a few essential details made up or left out. Some lies are obvious, and some are very subtle. Some lies are told for a good reason. Some lies are selfish; other lies protect others. We are interested in all these different types of lies. To help us understand lying, we are asking many people to tell us how often they lie."
Participants were asked how many lies they had told in the past twenty-four hours. Here are some of the key findings:
- The average number of lies told per day was 1.65. This strikes me as surprisingly low. I have the feeling that many participants were lying about the extent of their lying!
- Only 40.1 percent of the sample reported telling a lie in the past 24 hours.
- 22.7 percent of all lies were told by one percent of the sample, and half of all of the lies were told by 5.3 percent of the sample.
- Subsequent to controlling for various demographic variables, no statistically significant sex differences were found in terms of the extent of lying (men = 1.93 lies; women = 1.39 lies). I should mention that evolutionary psychologists would have predicted this null effect, as one should expect that men and women are equally adept at lying albeit they are more or less likely to lie about sex-specific issues of evolutionary import (e.g., in personal ads/online dating, men tend to lie about their social status more often, while women tend to lie about their appearance more; cf. Hall et al., 2010).
This leads me to one final thought, for those who may be asked the following question by their significant other: "Do these jeans make me look fat?" If the veridical answer is "yes," you may wish to exercise your daily quota of lying in offering a response.