The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer

The Science of Lying

published April 2014
When are we most (and least) likely to lie?
magazine cover

“Could switching to Geico really save you 15 percent or more on car insurance? Was Abe Lincoln honest?” So intones the Geico commercial spokesperson, followed by faux vintage film footage of Mary Lincoln asking her husband, “Does this dress make my backside look big?” Honest Abe squirms and shifts, then hesitates and, while holding his thumb and forefinger an inch apart, finally mutters, “Perhaps a bit,” causing his wife to spin on her heels and exit in a huff.

The humor works because we recognize the question as a disguised request for a compliment or as a test of our love and loyalty. According to neuroscientist Sam Harris in his 2013 book Lying (Four Elephants Press), however, even in such a scenario we should always tell the truth: “By lying, we deny our friends access to reality—and their resulting ignorance often harms them in ways we did not anticipate. Our friends may act on our falsehoods, or fail to solve problems that could have been solved only on the basis of good information.” Maybe Mary’s dressmaker is incompetent, or maybe Mary actually could stand to lose some weight, which would make her healthier and happier. Moreover, Harris says, little white lies often lead to big black lies: “Very soon, you may find yourself behaving as most people do quite effortlessly: shading the truth, or even lying outright, without thinking about it. The price is too high.” A practical solution is to think of a way to tell the truth with tact. As Harris notes, research shows that “all forms of lying—including white lies meant to spare the feelings of others—are associated with poorer-quality relationships.”

Most of us are not Hitlerian in our lies, but nearly all of us shade the truth just enough to make ourselves or others feel better. By how much do we lie? About 10 percent, says behavioral economist Dan Ariely in his 2012 book The Honest Truth about Dishonesty (Harper). In an experiment in which subjects solve as many number matrices as possible in a limited time and get paid for each correct answer, those who turned in their results to the experimenter in the room averaged four out of 20. In a second condition in which subjects count up their correct answers, shred their answer sheet and tell the experimenter in another room how many they got right, they averaged six out of 20—a 10 percent increase. And the effect held even when the amount paid per correct answer was increased from 25 to 50 cents to $1, $2 and even $5. Tellingly, at $10 per correct answer the amount of lying went slightly down. Lying, Ariely says, is not the result of a cost-benefit analysis. Instead it is a form of self-deception in which small lies allow us to dial up our self-image and still retain the perception of being an honest person. Big lies do not.

Psychologists Shaul Shalvi, Ori Eldar and Yoella Bereby-Meyer tested the hypothesis that people are more likely to lie when they can justify the deception to themselves in a 2013 paper entitled “Honesty Requires Time (and Lack of Justifications),” published in Psychological Science. Subjects rolled a die three times in a setup that blocked the experimenter’s view of the outcome and were instructed to report the number that came up in the first roll. (The higher the number, the more money they were paid.) Seeing the outcomes of the second and third rolls gave the participants an opportunity to justify reporting the highest number of the three; because that number had actually come up, it was a justified lie.

Some subjects had to report their answer within 20 seconds, whereas others had an unlimited amount of time. Although both groups lied, those who were given less time were more likely to do so. In a second experiment subjects rolled the die once and reported the outcome. Those who were pressed for time lied; those who had time to think told the truth. The two experiments suggest that people are more likely to lie when time is short, but when time is not a factor they lie only when they have justification to do so. Perhaps Mary should not have given Abe so much time to ponder his response.

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20 Comments to “The Science of Lying”

  1. Ray Madison Says:

    “The two experiments suggest that people are more likely to lie when time is short, but when time is not a factor they lie only when they have justification to do so.”
    Experiments without real life consequences tell you next to nothing about lying in real life. Which is where we lie to some extent in everything we say, putting our best face forward for mostly good reasons. Telling the complete truth is the dumbest strategy real people ever use. Truths will nevertheless involve culturally acceptable deception and lies involve the unacceptable. So did I lie a bit here? Well it’s what I decided not to add that I did not disclosed. Which may have involved my opinion about Shermer’s pretentiousness.

  2. joel m shearer Says:

    Ariely’s 10% is correct iff you base the percentage on the number of excess correct answers claimed divided by the maximum possible number of correct answers, but so what? It could also be said that the answer presents a 33% lie, where 33% of the total claimed correct answers are fictions, or 50%, the amount by which the correct answers are exaggerated in the response. You could say it’s 100% lies: one response asked for, and one lie told. I would say it’s fatuous to assign a percentage in the circumstances.

  3. Bill Morgan Says:

    Michael fails to mention the biggest liars of all. Politicians and governments. They lie most of the time. We seldom hear the truth from government. The CIA, FBI, NSA, etc. are master liars. They cover up crimes all the time. Michael believes the government has told us the truth about 9/11, JFK, RFK, MLK, USS Liberty, Pearl Harbor, etc. He does not believe that governments commit False Flag operations. Why does he fail to see the lies?

  4. Chris Says:

    Bill Morgan Says: “Michael believes the government has told us the truth about 9/11, JFK, RFK, MLK, USS Liberty, Pearl Harbor, etc.” While I’m sure there are details within the narratives that are not disclosed, I read your comment as implying the big popular conspiracy theories. Sorry Bill, The consensus of many outside independent investigative bodies have corroborated that 9/11 was perpetrated by Saudi terrorists. Even the producers of Loose Change have backed away from their own claims of U.S. government conspiracy.

  5. Joe Says:

    @Bill Morgan – nice and succinct comment which gets to the heart of many of the lies told right here and by the head Skeptic himself. Many of us do wonder why Shermer consistently “fails to mention the biggest liars of all”. @Chris – don’t assume that even if the consensus believes that “9/11 was perpetrated by Saudi terrorists” that that is the “Lie” which Bill, or anyone else who is rightly skeptical of the official story, refers to regarding that event. Perhaps 15 of the 19 supposed hijackers were Saudi nationals. That doesn’t eliminate all the other many lies and possible lies told to the public about 9/11. What is clear is that the public has been lied to in many ways about each of the events which Bill Morgan mentioned. All one has to do is read the 9/11 Commission report or the Warren Commission report with an open mind and the lies become quite evident.

  6. J Dan Vignau Says:

    Where is the data supporting these statements of belief my Michael Shermer. The “fact” that he believes in the gist of the government supplied stories does not negate any disbelief he fosters about government lies.
    Also, he can write about whatever he wishes. Should he choose to ignore our lying politicians, he is still contributing a great deal to popular culture, especially concerning myth and superstitious religious dogma.
    Are you?

  7. Pedro Quintanilla Says:

    I do believe that the “conspiracy theories” about the deaths of JFK, Princess Diana, and Marilyn Monroe, at least, have been long debunked. The reason most people believe in such theories is because they were such larger-than-life people that it is hard to believe that a single, irrelevant, short and less-than-average man could kill the president by himself, or that an enormous amount of people could be involved in Diana´s death in such a short time, or that a suicidal Marilyn could be killed by the highest echelons of power and risk exposure. The facts are much simpler: JFK was killed by a single madman, Diana died in an idiotic accident and MM committed suicide. So far there is NO evidence in all cases of these personalities died for other reasons. Soon a theory will emerge advocating that the Malayan jet’s demise was due to a conspiracy too.

  8. Bad Boy Scientist Says:

    I find it odd that when discussing government lies, the examples trotted out were so controversial. We know of documented government lies and deceptions such as the Iran-Contra affair, claims of no torture, claims the US military didn’t cross certain national boundaries (wow, this one has been repeated so many times in so many military actions…).

    Then there are secret operations – lies by omission? – like the CIA ‘tests’ of biological warfare on American cities using influenza, the Tuskegee syphilis tests, Army tests of LSD on unsuspecting subjects…

    Lest anyone think I’m on an anti-government screed – think of all of the lies Corporate execs have made under testimony… including Big Tobacco’s many lies.

    Sam Harris lives in a fantasy world if he thinks getting you & me to tell the truth is a good thing in this culture.

  9. Bill Morgan Says:

    I would suggest some of the Skeptics that don’t believe our government lies to us Google and read 33 Conspiracy Theories That Turned Out To Be True – What Every Person Should Know. Posted on Pakalert on October 13, 2010 By Jonathan Elinoff. Chris which IA do you work for?

  10. Jamie Karn Says:

    Interesting that many of the commentors here missed what I believe is the one of key point of the article, yet illustrate it in their comments.

    Quoting the article: “As Harris notes, research shows that 1all forms of lying—including white lies meant to spare the feelings of others—are associated with poorer-quality relationships.'” This is the key issue about lying – it results in dissolution of trust and deterioration of relationships. There are many reasons we should tell the truth rather than lying and key among them is maintaining mutually healthy relationships. Lying requires determining that the audience (even oneself) is “the other,” is not part of the in-group, or tribe or family. Lying is a betrayal of the other party. It is apparently ok to lie to outsiders, because they are “the other,” and not part of us. But the more we lie to others and betray them, the more isolated and unhealthy we ourselves are. Russia is a great current example of this.

  11. Tom Miller Says:

    I haven’t read all comments, but the ones I’ve read fail to address my concern. Sam Harris says we deny our friends access to reality when we go along with their delusion. What makes us the arbiter of what is good or not good for them? Perhaps they do not want “access to reality” and would be happier living in a world of delusion. In any case it is not our responsibility to judge. It is hard enough to attempt to maintain a private and individual grasp on reality. Why should we take on the thankless task of ensuring that others see reality from our viewpoint. You never know, perhaps we are the ones who are wrong–or as I said originally perhaps it is not our job to “correct” them. Doing so would be a full time task, and a thankless one.

  12. Charles Lee Says:

    What some people think of as a “lie” is simply their use, or maybe their intentional misuse of language, to allow the listener to infer one meaning, while plausibly/defensibly intending an equivocal meaning of the same thing that may have a completely different connotation (or denotation) which lays the fault on the listener who does not/cannot make the distinction?

    Someone with better language skills could easily make the listener “hear” what the speaker wants them to infer, and the listener’s more limited language skills renders the distinction indiscernible, and to think the speaker lied?

    Mary Lincoln was, of course, asking a “loaded question” to which she obviously wanted a compliment in response, but what would you have said,, before you moved your pillow to the couch or the garage?

    Sam Harris’s “oblique” questions in his experiment were more likely to get real answers, since if you were to ask most people if they lie, they would deny it, which would be a lie, so there you go …

    My similar experiment goes like this:

    If you were to ask someone if they believe in God, they might give an “expected” response, but I prefer to ask them “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?”

    If they believe in God, their response will more likely (imho) be, the chicken, since God made chickens, and chickens made the eggs.

    A more secular person might be more likely to respond, the egg, since “whole chickens” are more likely to have come from a mutation in the egg and not have magically appeared fully formed?

    Just a thought, but lies are with us to stay, as counterproductive as they may be, they have “survival value” (unless you like sleeping with your car!)

  13. Rensia Melles Says:

    perhaps we are talking about a number of different things here. The lies in the experiments that Sam Harris describes are lies about objective facts such as the number of die roles or the number of correctly answered questions on a test. Perhaps the definition of lying should be limited to how people deny or acknowledge objective facts.
    Unfortunately Harris’ example of Abe and Mary Lincoln is not about an objective fact but about a subjective perception.
    Relationships will suffer if you lie about having an affair (a yes or no fact) but it can be argued that the relationship is sustained or improved by not telling your spouse that you think they look fat or their style of beard is unattractive. Is there really a proven trajectory that if I am inclined to avoid telling my partner that they are fat that I will then also be more inclined to lie about how much money I spent or about having an affair?

    Cultures vary on how they value “honesty” about subjective experience. The Dutch tend be very direct communicators who think misrepresenting your opinion is manipulative, while many Asian cultures value consensus and avoid confrontation through the use of indirect communication. So “no” is expressed as “let me think about it” and “that idea sucks” becomes “perhaps we can look into more ways of doing this” .
    Whether direct communication is considered offensive or indirect communication considered lying lies in the eye of the listener.

  14. Carl Berke Says:

    I am astounded that the further the commentators get from themselves the more acceptable and expectable lies get. What does being personally honest have to do with purported big lies? The only thing I deduce is that they come to a false conclusion. That is, the king has no clothes and so I can tell lies because I find it convenient/safe not speaking of his ridiculosity! And by the way, conspiracy theories arise when we suspect someone of lying.

  15. Charles Lee Says:

    Yes, in part, to Tom Miller, since it is certainly a thankless task, as I can attest, since many people prefer to live in toon-town, and hopefully neither of you will ever have to face reality.

    But then too, neither of you will ever grow.

    Effective, authentic assessment is the means to a productive, meaningful relationship.

    Another version of a lie is : “Judge not lest ye be judged”
    This simply means “Don’t tell me on me and I won’t tell on you” which is fraught with its own set of problems, that we hear on the news every day, especially with all the politicians getting caught in their own webs of lies?

  16. Charles Lee Says:

    To Carl Berke:
    Is that the definition of a “”slippery slope” ?

    You said “conspiracy theories arise when we suspect someone of lying” but what if they are lieing? Do we just let it happen because it’s not hurting us personally?

    On the other hand, conspiracies may survive BECAUSE we don’t call them on their lies, even at some cost to us?

    Maybe the King is walking around naked just to find out whom he can trust to be honest with him, and the rest are either not observant enough, or are hiding their own secrets?

    I prefer the truth simply because it’s easier to remember, and I try not to do things I might have to hide, so … problem solved?

  17. HICUSDICUS Says:

    If I can’t lie to you why should I talk to you ? If I have to lie to you why should I talk to you ? Take your pick.

  18. Mark Says:

    You need to be skeptical of anything anyone says. Friends say stuff, Loved ones say stuff, People running for office say stuff. It’s your spot to identify, how much they lie, and adjust your trust accordingly. I doubt Mary asked Abe if her ass looks fat. I think a fat ass was very normal back in the day and would never have been a issue. She had mental issues, I don’t know that she did, That what I learned from school. There was a movie out many years back, called the “invension of lieing” great movie, but it lends insight in to if nobody lied. It’s a comedy so worth watching.

  19. Gary Says:

    Sam Harris is lying to himself if he thinks that telling his girlfriend that her ass is too big helps their relationship.

  20. Art Landy Says:

    To me, the 20 or so comments I have read represent a comical collection of opinions which, though I must assume did not originally have the motivation to be dishonest, turned into attempted dialogues in which their authors were each struggling to achieve the greatest proportion of one-upman-ship. A fun read to be sure, but near impossible to reach sane conclusions with any degree of confidence.

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