The truth about lies

Believe it or not, there is such a thing as ‘deception literature’ – that is the study of lies in the practice of communication. I’m not sure whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing – good, I suppose, in that someone is actually bothering to take account of mankind’s propensity to deceit, and bad, in that there is a bona fide market for it.

Data collected as part of a public engagement project by the Science Museum in London in 2010 has recently been used to generate a new online survey (n= 2,980), in which participants reported how often they told small lies (so-called ‘white’ lies) and how often they told big lies. The researchers, Kim Serota from Oakland University, Rochester and Tim Levine from Korea University, Seoul, also asked participants to share their attitudes to, and experiences of, lying.

The results reveal that almost 10% of the UK sample were prolific liars, who averaged over six white lies per day and almost three big lies. This was compared with the average of a little over one white lie per day and one big lie per week told by ‘everyday liars’, who made up the bulk of the sample. There was consensus between the two groups as to what constitutes a big lie, with lying about whether you love someone being the most popular example.

Prolific liars are more likely to be younger and male and to work in more senior occupational roles (scary, no?). They also tend to be unrepentant, considering their behaviour not something they expect to grow out of. They are more likely to lie to their partners and children than everyday liars, who tend to lie more to their mothers. Lies, it seems, are first and foremost a family affair.

Previous work by the same researchers on a sample population from the USA reveals that, on average, Britons are bigger liars than Americans, telling just over two lies per day to Americans’ one to two per day.  Around 25% of the UK sample said they lie on a typical day, compared with almost 60% of the US sample – problem is, who do you believe?!

The authors report in their paper summary:

“[This] recent research and reanalysis of previous studies reporting the frequency of lies shows that most people are honest most of the time and the majority of lies are told by a few prolific liars.”

That’s all well and good, but what I find fascinating is that what we’re dealing with here are just two groups – prolific liars and everyday liars – is there anyone out there who actually tells the truth? The researchers’ assessment above that ‘most people are honest most of the time’ is still referring to everyday liars – I would find it far more reassuring to know there are people out there who simply don’t tell lies at all!

There’s an adage in the popular 12-Step recovery movement (Alcoholics Anonymous being the best known example) which goes ‘you are as sick as your secrets.’ If that statement is true, it would seem we are living in a frightfully ailing culture.

Written by Jacqui Hogan