Some Lie a Lot
Most people are fairly honest, but there are prolific liars among us.
Posted Oct 10, 2019
William Shakespeare noted that “no legacy is so rich as honesty,” yet most of us veer from the path of unwavering faithfulness to the truth, occasionally telling lies.
Fortunately, the general tendency of most people is to be forthright and honest in their communication. We prefer the truth in others, and we generally offer them the truth as well. Honest communication is the currency of social interactions and the bedrock of relationships. Without honesty, communication would be pointless and social interactions would be useless.
In fact, we lie infrequently enough that people typically assume we are being truthful. Despite our honest tendencies, however, most people do tell some lies. Importantly, we are not all equally dishonest. Yes, most of us lie… but some lie a lot.
When I ask people, “Who lies?” the answer I often hear is “everyone!” That might not be entirely correct, but it is pretty close.
There are some who don’t lie at all. Very young children don’t lie. Until kids reach the age of two, they are exceptionally honest. As kids get older and start to hone their new skills of deception, the rest of society begins to punish that dishonesty, attempting to shape children into honest citizens.
Kids learn to exercise their deception more cautiously, typically adopting a pattern of using deceit sparingly, reserving lies for strategically important situations. Evelyne Debey found that the frequency of lying peaks in adolescence, and then lying rates decline as people move into adulthood, continuing to fall into old age. So, adolescents lie a lot compared to other age groups. Aside from them, there are other groups of people who tend to lie a lot.
In the 1990s, Bella DePaulo conducted a series of studies in which she asked participants to keep diaries of all of the conversations they had over a two-week period. In those diaries, people were instructed to keep track of all the lies they told. What she found was that, on average, people told about two lies per day. That number can be a bit misleading though, as it suggests that perhaps we all tell a couple of lies each day.
A more recent analysis of those diaries indicates that while the average was two lies per day, the lies were not evenly distributed. Most people told no lies or one lie, while a few prolific liars told the bulk of the lies. This is a finding that I uncovered in my research as well. It seems that while most of us are fairly honest, there are a few out there who are contributing most of the dishonesty in our society.
This pattern of a few individuals telling most of the lies follows what is known as the Pareto principle, which is also known as "the law of the vital few." In short, this principle suggests that in a population, 20 percent of the people account for 80 percent of a behavior. For instance, when it comes to alcohol consumption in the U.S., the bottom 80 percent of people each drink about one alcoholic beverage per week on average. However, the top 20 percent of drinkers each consume an average of 45 beverages per week. Thus, the vital few represent a disproportionate amount of drinking behavior.
Liars follow a similar pattern. In one recent study, 60 percent of people reported telling no lies during a typical day, with another 25 percent telling one or two lies per day. So, 85 percent of people appeared to be quite honest. However, a small subset of about 1 percent reportedly told more than 20 lies per day! We replicated this finding in our recent study on lying. It seems that a relatively small group of people in our society is responsible for the vast majority of the lying and dishonesty.
Who are these prolific liars? Personality is one variable that accounts for who lies the most. In one study I conducted with Haylie Jones, we found that people who are high in Machiavellianism (people who are manipulative, unemotional, and indifferent to morality) tend to tell significantly more lies than a typical person.
In a different study, I found that the prolific liars tend to be people who have low self-esteem (Hart, Lemon, Curtis, & Griffith, in press). Additionally, they tend to be low in conscientiousness and openness to new experiences. In another recent study of ours, we investigated whether the number of lies one tells is associated with the attitudes that one holds about dishonesty. We found that people who tend to view lying as an acceptable behavior in our culture also tended to be the more prolific liars.
Other researchers have studied the demographic variables of prolific liars, finding that prolific liars were more likely to be men than women and tended to be younger adults. They were also relatively likely to be people who were in high-status occupations. Looking more specifically at the careers of prolific liars, they tended to be working in business fields and in tech careers.
The most extraordinary liars do not always get away with their lies. Serota and Levine found that prolific liars are significantly more likely to have their romantic relationships end because of their dishonesty. They are also much more likely to be reprimanded or fired from their jobs because of their deceit. Perhaps these very severe consequences of prolific lying are what helps keep excessive liars to a minimum in our society.
It seems that most people lie. We learn to lie at a young age, and for most of us, dishonesty tapers off in adulthood, with most adults lying quite infrequently. However, we might be wise to keep our guard up, as there are a few rotten apples out there who very regularly try to use guile and deceit to take advantage of the rest of us. Some lie a lot.