There are a number of variables that distinguish these cases. One is the audience: the faceless government, particular donors and millions of online followers, respectively. Another is the medium used to convey the alleged lie: on a bureaucratic form, through intermediaries and via social media.
Differences like these lead researchers like me to wonder what factors influence the telling of lies. Does a personal connection increase or decrease the likelihood of sticking to the truth? Are lies more prevalent on text or email than on the phone or in person?
An emerging body of empirical research is trying to answer these questions, and some of the findings are surprising. They hold lessons, too – for how to think about the areas of your life where you might be more prone to tell lies, and also about where to be most cautious in trusting what others are saying. As the recent director of The Honesty Project and author of “Honesty: The Philosophy and Psychology of a Neglected Virtue,” I am especially interested in whether most people tend to be honest or not.
Figuring out the frequency of lies
Most research on lying asks participants to self-report their lying behavior, say during the past day or week. (Whether you can trust liars to tell the truth about lying is another question.)
The classic study on lying frequency was conducted by psychologist Bella DePaulo in the mid-1990s. It focused on face-to-face interactions and used a group of student participants and another group of volunteers from the community around the University of Virginia. The community members averaged one lie per day, while the students averaged two lies per day. This result became the benchmark finding in the field of honesty research and helped lead to an assumption among many researchers that lying is commonplace.
But averages do not describe individuals. It could be that each person in the group tells one or two lies per day. But it’s also possible that there are some people who lie voraciously and others who lie very rarely.
In an influential 2010 study, this second scenario is indeed what Michigan State University communication researcher Kim Serota and his colleagues found. Out of 1,000 American participants, 59.9% claimed not to have told a single lie in the past 24 hours. Of those who admitted they did lie, most said they’d told very few lies. Participants reported 1,646 lies in total, but half of them came from just 5.3% of the participants.