Before I became so passionate about studying and writing about single life (and not just practicing it), my primary area of expertise was the psychology of lying and detecting lies. I still write a bit about that topic now and then, and have published a few books on the topic.
With Lance Armstrong and Manti Te’o making so many headlines lately, I’ve been asked many questions by people in the media. So with your indulgence, I thought I’d step away from my usual single-at-heart themes for a moment and share with you the answer to a question I was asked recently: How do men and women differ as liars?
In a pair of studies my colleagues and I conducted in the 1990s, two groups of people – college students and people from the community – agreed to keep track of all of their social interactions and all of the lies they told during those interactions. They kept these lie diaries every day for a week. The two groups were very different, demographically, but their ways of lying were quite similar.
We calculated each person’s rate of lying – the number of lies they told per social interaction.
The most basic question we were able to answer about sex differences was this one: Who lies more often, men or women?
If you guessed women, you are wrong. If you guessed men, you are also wrong. In the rate at which they tell lies in their everyday lives, men and women are equals.
Where the real differences show up is in what the men and women are lying about and whom they are trying to fool.
Think about two main reasons for lying:
- Self-centered reasons: These are the lies that are all about you. You tell these lies to try to make yourself look better or feel better, or protect yourself from embarrassment or disapproval or conflict or from getting your feelings hurt.
- Kind-hearted reasons: These are the lies you tell to help or protect someone else. You tell these lies to make someone else look better or feel better, or to protect them from embarrassment or disapproval or conflict or getting their feelings hurt.
People generally tell more self-centered lies than kind-hearted lies. Who tells especially more self-centered lies than kind-hearted lies? Here are your options:
- Men lying to men
- Men lying to women
- Women lying to men
- Women lying to women
The ration of self-serving lies to altruistic lies is especially lopsided when men are talking to other men. Men tell somewhere between three and nine times as many self-centered lies than kind-hearted lies when they are talking to other men.
In only one of the four combinations do people tell just as many kind-hearted lies as self-centered lies. Can you guess which?
It is the last one. When women are lying to other women, they do not tell any more self-centered lies than kind-hearted lies.
When someone is lying about how fast they ran or how well they performed, it is probably a man talking to another man.
When you hear people saying things they don’t mean such as:
- I know just how you feel
- You did the right thing
- You look terrific!
- This is so delicious
you are probably listening to two women. That doesn’t mean that women do not value honesty when they are talking with other women. Maybe, though, they value loyalty and their friendship with one another even more. These are the kinds of lies that are intended to be friendly and supportive.
[You can read more about lying in everyday life in The Hows and Whys of Lies (paperback here; ebook here). The original journal articles, complete with statistical reporting, are collected in The Lies We Tell and the Clues We Miss: Professional Papers (paperback here; ebook here). If you are more interested in people’s most serious lies instead of their everyday lies, try Behind the Door of Deceit: Understanding the Biggest Liars in Our Lives (paperback here; ebook here). The books that are not collections of academic writings are short and sweet and inexpensive.]