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Which Types of People Are the Most Deceptive?

Most people are honest, but some individuals are more inclined to lie often.

Key points

  • Most people are (self-reportedly) honest, and a few individuals lie prolifically in a population.
  • Those who lie prolifically are more likely to be high on Dark Triad traits and cheat on one-off tasks than those engaged in everyday lying.
  • A constellation of characteristics reveals prolific lying, from individual-level to situational characteristics.

People are often drawn to the topic of deception because they want to become better lie detectors. Decades of deception research suggest trying to achieve this aim is a fool’s errand. However, our default is to assume that others are being honest with us, and we’re therefore poor at detecting lies.

The challenges of deception detection have motivated researchers like me to think critically about deception production: who lies, how often do they lie, why do they lie, and under what circumstances is deception likely?

Years ago, I came across a general finding that most people are (self-reportedly) honest, and only a few people tell the majority of lies in a sample. This pattern has been substantiated in Japan, the US, the UK, and in settings such as dating apps. If only a few people tell most lies, we need to know who these individuals are beyond their deception prevalence rates.

Existing research suggests those who lie prolifically are younger and self-identify as male compared to those who engage in everyday lying. Research that I published this week in the journal Communication Research offers a new perspective on this topic and identifies those who lie prolifically from various situation-level and individual-level characteristics.

I conducted two studies: In each study, participants provided self-reported rates of white lying and big lying (How often do you tell a little white/big lie?). From the distribution of responses, participants were statistically categorized as people who lied prolifically or not for a given day. This was completed in a post-hoc manner, and therefore, no participant knew their status as someone who lied prolifically or not.

To evaluate the link between situation-level characteristics and prolific lying, participants were given a chance to cheat for personal gain. Participants solved word or math problems for money, and some of the trials were unsolvable (they did not have solutions, providing an opportunity for cheating).

After self-scoring the number of problems they solved correctly, those lying prolifically tended to cheat more than those who engaged in everyday lying. Opportunity leads to more cheating for those who lie prolifically.

Evidence at the individual level revealed how prolific lying is linked to aversive personality traits. Participants responded to The Dark Triad, which identifies people who are dispositionally high on narcissism (e.g., those who believe they are dominant and superior to others), Machiavellianism (e.g., those who are manipulative and lack conventional morals), and psychopathy (e.g., those who are thrill-seeking and low on empathy).

People who lied prolifically were nearly 12 times more likely to be high on psychopathy, four times more likely to be high on Machiavellianism, and 4.5 times more likely to be high on narcissism than those who engaged in everyday lying. Dispositional traits are therefore critical to understanding the psychological dynamics of prolific lying.

Finally, prior research suggests people who lie a lot tend to believe that others lie a lot as well, a type of false consensus effect for deception (called the deception consensus effect). This egocentric bias was observed in the current study and was slightly stronger for those who lied prolifically compared to those who engaged in everyday lying. Therefore, prolific lying is a social phenomenon that can modify perceptions of lying.

This line of research begins to develop an understanding of who tends to lie prolifically versus engage in everyday lying. Evaluating how these patterns hold over time, across multiple opportunities for deception, and across cultures are critical next steps. With this new evidence, however, it is clear that those lying prolifically have a different social and psychological makeup than those who engage in everyday lying.

While most people are honest, those who lie prolifically are indeed a different population. Therefore, you can mainly trust others because we are fundamentally honest. Those who lie a lot warrant special attention because they have unique individual-level characteristics and are situationally opportunistic deceivers.

References

Bond, C. F., & DePaulo, B. M. (2006). Accuracy of deception judgments. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 10(3), 214–234. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15327957pspr1003_2

Daiku, Y., Serota, K. B., & Levine, T. R. (2021). A few prolific liars in Japan: Replication and the effects of Dark Triad personality traits. PLOS ONE, 16(4), e0249815–e0249815. https://doi.org/10.1371/JOURNAL.PONE.0249815

Levine, T. R. (2014). Truth-Default Theory (TDT): A theory of human deception and deception detection. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 33(4), 378–392. https://doi.org/10.1177/0261927x14535916

Markowitz, D. M. (2022). Toward a deeper understanding of prolific lying: Building a profile of situation-level and individual-level characteristics. Communication Research, 00936502221097041. https://doi.org/10.1177/00936502221097041

Markowitz, D. M., & Hancock, J. T. (2018). Deception in mobile dating conversations. Journal of Communication, 68(3), 547–569. https://doi.org/10.1093/joc/jqy019

Serota, K. B., & Levine, T. R. (2015). A few prolific liars: Variation in the prevalence of lying. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 34(2), 138–157. https://doi.org/10.1177/0261927x14528804

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