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Is There Anyone Who Lies More Often Than They Tell the Truth?

During the first two decades of my professional career, before I started studying single life, I studied the psychology of lying. My focus was on ordinary people and the lies they tell.

In all that time, there was one question it never occurred to me to ask: Are there people who lie more often than they tell the truth? I’m a social psychologist, so I don’t know about clinical populations (people with diagnosed mental illnesses), but with regard to people outside of those groups, the question would have seemed preposterous.

The people I studied, in one research project after another, cared about being honest – or at least being regarded as honest. It is not that they didn’t lie. In studies in which 77 college students and 70 people from the community kept track of all the lies they told everyday for a week, only 1 college student and 6 people from the community claimed not to have told a single lie.

They lied, but they did not want to be seen as liars. In an amusing finding that was not particularly unexpected, the people in both groups, on the average, thought they were better than average. They believed that they lied less often than other people.

Sometimes people are tempted to lie for a good reason – to be kind to another person and spare their feelings. Even then, they try not to tell outright lies. My colleague Kathy Bell and I studied this by creating an awkward situation in which participants ended up talking to an art student about paintings of hers that they hated. When the art student asked them what they thought of those paintings, they came up with all sorts of clever contortions to avoid telling the outright lie that the student would like to hear. The kind thing to say would have been, “I loved it.” But they didn’t want to be that dishonest. Instead, they tried to find ways of saying things they could defend as truthful, even though they were misleading. For example, they would mention some aspects of the paintings they really did like, while downplaying or just not acknowledging many of the aspects they really disliked.

My colleagues and I did study the frequency of lying in some ways. We looked at how often people lied each day. On the average, it was about twice a day for the college students and once for the people in the community.

We also asked our participants to keep track of the number of social interactions they had each day. Social interactions were defined as “any exchange between you and another person that lasts 10 minutes or more.” We thought of social interactions as opportunities to lie. Our concern was that telling, say, 2 lies a day would mean something different for a person who rarely interacts with other people than for someone who spends lots of time with others. (This was in the late 1990s, before email and other communication technologies were as popular as they are now. We did include phone conversations and written exchanges.)

We found that the college students lied in about 1 in every 3 of their social interactions. The community members lied in 1 of every 5 of their interactions.

But that still doesn’t tell us if anyone lied more often than they told the truth. In any social interaction, a person could make any number of truthful statements and any number of deceptive ones. We did not keep track of that.

There is now one person whose false and misleading statements have probably been more carefully and exhaustively documented than anyone else in history. That’s President Donald Trump. The Washington Post fact checker team has been keeping track of every one of his false and misleading claims since the day he took office. (The team typically uses the phrase “false and misleading claims” rather than the simpler “lies” because to say that someone told a lie means that the person was deliberately misleading others. It is not always possible to know that with regard to Trump. I’m using “lies” as a shorthand to describe the fact checkers’ findings.)

Every false and misleading claim of Trump’s is archived in an ongoing database. By the end of his first three years in office, Trump had told more than 16,000 lies. On behalf of The Washington Post fact checker staff, Glenn Kessler, Salvador Rizzo, and Meg Kelly just published an important book, Donald Trump and His Assault on Truth: The President’s Falsehoods, Misleading Claims and Flat-Out Lies, in which they organize, contextualize, and try to make sense of Trump’s mendacious behavior.

Kessler and his colleagues found that on the average, in his first year in office, 2017, Trump told 6 lies a day.

The next year, 2018, Trump told an average of 16 false or misleading statements a day. By 2019, it was up to a truly astonishing 22 lies a day.

Compare that to the 1 or 2 that my colleagues and I found. In our research, we also studied the lie journals of each of our participants individually. Across all 147 participants, the one person who told more lies than anyone else told an average of 6.6 lies a day.

Trump’s rates of lying are extraordinary. But does he lie more often than he tells the truth?

The fact check team conducted a line-by-line analysis of the speeches Trump gave at three of his rallies – in July 2018, September 2018, and December 2019. As Kessler and his co-authors explained in Donald Trump and His Assault on Truth:

“We focused only on material statements, avoiding trivialities and opinions. We didn’t double-count statements when the president repeated himself.”

Trump told more lies than truths in all three rallies, and not just barely. In the 2019 rally, 67% of Trump’s factual statements were “false, mostly false or unsupported by evidence.” In the September 2018 rally, it was 70% and in the July 2018 rally, it was a mind-blowing 76%.

At these three Trump rallies, at least 2 out of every 3 factual statements, and as many as 3 out of 4, were untrue. If you were to use a rule of thumb to evaluate the claims that Trump makes in his rallies, you would be more accurate by just assuming that he is lying than by assuming that he is telling the truth.

Before Trump, when I was studying lying for many years, I never would have seen that coming.

It is exactly the opposite of the “truth bias” heuristic that most people use ordinarily – they give other people the benefit of the doubt, by just assuming they are telling the truth. They are resistant to abandoning that spirit of generosity. Even in studies in which they are (accurately) forewarned that only half of the statements they will be seeing will be truthful, they still judge more than half of those statements as truths.

Is There Anyone Who Lies More Often Than They Tell the Truth?


Bella DePaulo, Ph.D

Bella DePaulo (Ph.D., Harvard; Academic Affiliate, Psychological and Brain Sciences, UC Santa Barbara), an expert on single life, is the author of several books, including "Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After" and "How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century." Her TEDx talk is "What no one ever told you about people who are single," https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lyZysfafOAs. Dr. DePaulo has discussed singles and single life on radio and television, including NPR and CNN, and her work has been described in newspapers such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today, and magazines such as Time, Atlantic, the Week, More, the Nation, Business Week, AARP Magazine, and Newsweek. Dr. DePaulo is in her sixties. She has always been single and always will be. She is "single at heart" -- single is how she lives her best and most meaningful life. Visit her website at www.BellaDePaulo.com.


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APA Reference
DePaulo, B. (2020). Is There Anyone Who Lies More Often Than They Tell the Truth?. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 4, 2020, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/single-at-heart/2020/06/is-there-anyone-who-lies-more-often-than-they-tell-the-truth/

 

Last updated: 5 Jun 2020
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