The honest liars

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How often do we really lie? (thinkstock)

Every human being, we read frequently, lies on average twice a day. Unfortunately, this value has a flaw: it is based on personal reports. But do people tell the truth when it comes to how often they fib? Dutch researchers have now got to the bottom of this question and have found out: Those who claim to lie frequently actually tend to cheat in experiments. The penchant for fibbing is extremely variable: The majority almost never lies, but a minority always does.

Actually, lies are frowned upon. And yet we all use them occasionally as a social lubricant: so as not to hurt other people’s feelings or to look better ourselves, for a good cause or for our own benefit. Several studies in the past have concluded that simply everyone lies – on average exactly twice a day. Unfortunately, this value has two flaws: First, it is based on self-reports with undefined truth content. Second, it says nothing about whether we are all fibbing, or whether there are some chronic liars raising the average.

A group of Dutch researchers led by Rony Halevy from the University of Amsterdam is now investigating in the current issue of the journal “Human Communication Research” how much these two blemishes carry weight. In addition the scientists examined, how strongly the truth faithfulness of humans differs. They also examined for the first time whether people who describe themselves as frequent liars are more likely to cheat – and vice versa.

First, the researchers asked over 500 psychology students in their first semester how often they had fibbed in the last 24 hours. Students averaged 2.04 lies per day. However, the distribution was remarkable: 41 percent said they never lied. Others, on the other hand, twisted the truth to their heart’s content. “In total, five percent of the test persons told 40 percent of all lies,” write the researchers. This cheating fraction also achieved higher scores on a scale of psychopathic tendencies.

A conscious choice for the dark side

In the second attempt, the scientists invited 51 honest and dishonest participants to the laboratory. They played two games there: In the first experiment, the dice had to be thrown under cover and the number had to be indicated. In the second experiment, the letters of a word had been changed and had to be put in the correct order; the test persons only indicated afterwards how many puzzles they had solved. The better they performed, the more money they received. Both tests had a built-in cheat test: In the first game, a liar was considered to be a person who performed significantly better than was statistically likely. In the second game, one of the nine puzzles could not be solved.

During the evaluation it turned out that test persons who often lied according to their own statements were more likely to fib in the laboratory in order to receive a higher reward. “It seems that frequent liars not only cheat more often; they are also more willing to admit it,” the researchers write. In additional tests, Münchhausen’s heirs had no problem making moral distinctions between right and wrong – they obviously deliberately chose the dark side. The result should worry those who suspect chronic liars in their environment. Psychologists, on the other hand, can breathe a sigh of relief: even bad cheaters answer questionnaires about lying truthfully.

Source: Bild der Wissenschaft vom 13.12.2013

Rony Halevy (University of Amsterdam) et al: Human Communication Research, DOI:10.1111/hcre.12019

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