No matter how well you think you know the people around you, it’s hard to determine if they’re being honest or deceptive with you. The reality is everyone lies, and some people do it more than others. Even kids as young as three years old lie to their parents.
Adults lie to each other at work, in their relationships, and to their friends and acquaintances. Teens lie to their friends and parents, and young kids lie to their teachers, parents, and friends. So, why do we lie? Research shows most of us lie to avoid punishment and impress others, which is understandable.
However, some people have a penchant for lying. Compulsive and pathological liars can’t help but lie to everyone in their life. To them, they feel more comfortable lying than telling the truth. If you don’t know how to uncover a liar, you’ll have difficulty spotting when people are deceptive with you.
So, are people more honest or deceptive in their communications with others? This article examines this question, and we’ll take a deep dive into this behavior and how it affects all levels of relationships in our lives.
The Research Shows Most People are Honest
In recent years, scientific research on deceptive (lying) behavior has given us a better understanding. A 2010 study shows the results of a survey involving 1,000 American men and women. According to the participant’s replies, we average around 1.65 lies told every day.
However, the group’s distribution of who told the lies was highly skewed. A staggering 59.9% of participants claimed they didn’t speak any lies in the last 24 hours. The counter to this statement is that the bulk of lies came from just 5.3% of the participants.
These results suggest that most people are honest in their relationships and interactions with others. Most of the lying that goes on in society comes from just a small sliver of people we can consider to be outliers.
More recent research into the topic shows similar results, but we need to er on the side of caution when reviewing these as well. The thing with these studies is that the researchers involved in these programs don’t follow the participants around for a lengthy period, such as a week, to see how their behavior changes from day to day and week to week.
For instance, someone might sit at home working online by themselves from Monday to Friday and have very few engagements with other people during this time. However, they go out on the weekend with their friends or to other social gatherings and tell a string of lies all in one day or evening.
A new study issued in 2021 in the leading scientific journal Communication Monographs shows interesting results. The primary interest in this study is that the research team had the participants report their daily lying behavior over three months.
The study involves 632 college students monitoring and reporting their lying activity daily for 91 consecutive days. Every day, the students had to answer how many times they had lied in the last 24 hours.
What Were the Findings?
The results in the report were extensive, and it’s too challenging to include all the conclusions in this post, so we’ll cover the important stuff. Similar to the previous study, the mean average of lies told by the group each day was 2.03.
Many students reported telling no lies in 24-hour periods. However, the highest number reported was 200. That’s a lot of whoppers each day, and it’s hard to imagine how one person could tell this many lies to their social group.
Additionally, two participants in the study stated they didn’t lie once during the entire 91 days. That also seems doubtful. Regardless of the independent results, the study places the participants into three groups as follows.
- Honest Individuals: 0 to 2 lies told per day.
- Intermediate Liars: 3 to 5 lies told per day.
- Prolific Liars: 6 or more lies told per day.
When we examine the number of participants placed in each group, we also notice a huge skewing of results.
- Honest Individuals: 74.7% of participants & 65.8% of total days during the survey.
- Intermediate Liars: 19.6% of participants & 10.0% of total days during the survey.
- Prolific Liars: 5.7% of participants & 4.0% of total days during the survey.
In these results, most people seem honest, and few are prolific liars. It also indicates that honest behavior is a consistent pattern in most people for months at a time.
However, a further question remains.
Are participants in the “Honest Individuals” category only telling 0 to 2 lies per day, and are they consistent with this behavior throughout the study? Similarly, are people in the “Prolific Liars” category telling more than six lies per day? The research team managed to answer this question by tracking the participants lying behavior over time, and the answer was no.
For example, the people in the Prolific Liars category told 0 to 2 lies on 5% of the 91 days during the study. So, on this small number of days, they were actually fairly honest in their engagements with others. Furthermore, people in the same group only told 3 to 5 lies on 25% of the 91 days.
This implies that the number of lies we tell fluctuates depending on the day. So, we can conclude that learning the average lying behavior of an individual can create a distorted view of how we perceive their daily lying behavior.
On some days, the Prolific Liars group would tell minimal lies, classifying them as an Honest Individuals. The same applies to Honest Individuals. This group told 6+ lies on just under 1% of the days during the 91-day study period.
So, it’s safe to assume that on any day, Prolific Liars don’t always exhibit prolific lying behavior consistently. Observing excessive lying on a single day only allows us to pinpoint a Prolific Liar with a success rate of one in four.
The study’s findings support some interesting conclusions, summarized as follows.
- Most people are honest in their communications with others.
- Lying is less frequent than honesty.
- The distribution of lies people tell is skewed by personality type and the number of lies told daily.
- Prolific Liars are responsible for most lies told by people in society.
- The use of specific lies is determined situationally.
We also note that there are some individuals that lie far more often and with greater frequency than others. Also, around 75% of people are generally considered honest by the standards set in this study. Some people are very honest and hardly ever tell lies.
Most people have good and bad lying days where they tell fewer or more lies than they usually do. Aside from a few compulsive and pathological liars, most of us are honest with each other most of the time. Typically, people won’t tell lies unless they have the motivation and reason to do so.
The biggest driver in how honest or deceptive we are comes from our daily communication demands. Considering we live in the age of misinformation and fake news, it’s surprising to learn that most people are more honest than we assume they are. Deception is more of an occasional thing people do; most of the time, they’re honest with the people in their lives.
Social Expectations and Honesty
We gravitate towards honest behavior naturally, and it seems to be a foundational aspect of human behavior to be more honest than deceptive with others. Consider your situation. How often do you find yourself wondering if someone you’re talking to is lying to you?
Unless you know the person you’re speaking to has a tendency to lie or you have several liars around you, we tend to trust most people we talk to. Most of us are honest, and we assume and trust other people to be the same when they communicate with us.
When we want to unpack the nature of human honesty, we need to approach it by viewing us as a social species. We all live in communities, cooperating with each other to help us achieve our goals. We reach out to each other when we’re in need, and we raise children around each other.
We all tend to want to help people around us, even if it might come with a cost to ourselves, because we choose to live in societal harmony with each other. It’s interesting to wonder why we all generally gravitate towards this social model, considering it’s more profitable to take the Machiavellian approach of being manipulative, deceptive, and exploitative of others. Why are we more cooperative with each other than manipulative?
The answer is that over the duration of human civilization, those who were more open and honest in their communication and behavior thrived. They were more likely to be successful than those who embraced Machiavellian life principles.
Condemn the Liars
An important point to help us understand the importance of honesty in social communications is understanding what happens to those that choose not to cooperate from this social perspective. Evolutionary anthropologists and psychologists find compelling evidence that we can’t survive without a community.
Those researchers studying early hunter-gather humans find that without the power of community, they are less likely to survive and thrive. Instead, they’re more likely to find themselves helpless when sick or injured and less likely to procreate.
Only by forming tribes and eventually civilizations did people manage to get access to social resources allowing them to live longer, bear children, and live a better life. Learning to cooperate with each other allowed us to avoid starvation when we were unable to hunt and to help others do the same.
Reputation & Trust
A critical part of human cooperation and social community is understanding that they’ll collaborate with you if you cooperate with someone. It’s reciprocal behavior. We all note who is cooperative and who isn’t, and we tend to stay away from those people that aren’t.
We’ll note when someone is helpful and when someone else is a liar and a cheat. For most of us, cooperation isn’t a random behavior; it’s specific. We usually only choose to cooperate with other people that we find trustworthy and reliable in life.
We also have a reputation in our community, and word about our behavior gets around to others. If we help people out, we’re likely to meet other people in need of assistance. Likewise, we’re able to rely on the people we assist when we need help ourselves.
When people are known liars, the word about their behavior spreads even faster throughout the community. We’re quick to ostracize those people that we believe are dishonest and deceptive. We keep them out of our lives as much as possible by limiting our contact with them.
If we discover someone dishonest in our community, we often set punishments for them. These punishments serve to teach the individual a lesson. However, it also shows other deceptive individuals in the community that we don’t appreciate this behavior and that they need to change or leave the group.
Are We Hard-Wired for Honesty?
Our necessity for community living shaped us all into cooperative people who value trust and reliability from others. We want to emulate these traits in ourselves to remain part of the group and maintain our reputation with others.
Our ancestors left these genetic footprints in our being so that we would understand the immense effort it took to move from the hunter-gather mentality towards a cooperative society. For this reason, we feel guilty after lying – well, most of us do anyway.
Our brains’ structure and neural wiring naturally push us towards being honest with others. If we’re dishonest with people in our lives, we feel an overwhelming sense of shame that only lifts when we clear our conscience.
So, it’s unsurprising that most of us are honest and not deceptive. Think about that when you’re communicating with people in your community. Do you notice more people connecting and sharing or pushing themselves away from this action? Chances are it’s the former, and you want to be a part of that too. The only way to achieve that is through open, honest communication.