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The assumption that everyone lies is not true. Many people do not lie at all, and only a small minority lies very frequently. Moreover, many liars are honest and open about how often they lie. These are the conclusions of a study conducted by psychologists at the University of Amsterdam (UvA), the results of which are being published in the scientific journal Human Communication Research.

Pinokkio

Researchers Rony Halevy (UvA), Bruno Verschuere (UvA, Ghent University and Maastricht University) and Shaul Shalvi (UvA, now Ben-Gurion University in Israel) surveyed 527 students to find out how often they had lied over the past 24 hours. As in previous studies, they found that, on average, survey participants admitted to lying twice a day. According to the researchers, this does not permit the conclusion that everyone lies. Because this is an average, it gives a distorted picture of individual differences in lying behaviour. In fact, 41% of the respondents indicated that they had not lied at all, whereas just 5% turned out to be accountable for 40% of all of the lies told.

Honest about lying

To find out whether the respondents were honest about the frequency of their lying, they were invited to take part in an additional lab test. In it, they were asked to roll a dice and received a sum of money depending on the number they reported having rolled. Because the researchers were unable to see the actual numbers rolled, participants were free to cheat and report higher numbers. Participants who had already admitted to lying more frequently also had higher winnings in this dice test, thus indicating that people who say they lie often, do indeed lie often. In fact, statistically, their scores were so implausible that they are likely to have lied about the numbers they rolled (rather than that they enjoyed a series of lucky rolls).

Psychopathic traits

The fact that participants who indicated lying often actually did lie more often in the dice test demonstrates that they were honest about their dishonesty. According to the researchers, this may be explained by a personality feature of frequent liars: they show more psychopathic traits (narcissistic, manipulative, insensitive, impulsive, irresponsible) and therefore have no trouble admitting to lying frequently.  

Future research

Future research will seek to further pinpoint the characteristics of liars and to establish the causal direction of correlations revealed by this study. Another promising area of research will seek to shed light on the process by which people become frequent or even pathological liars.

Publication details

R. Halevy, S. Shalvi, B. Verschuere: ‘Being Honest About Dishonesty: Correlating Self Reports and Actual Lying’, in: Human Communication Research (in press).