According to recent research, lying happens a lot more than you might think. Today I look at exactly how often … and whether things are as bad as they might seem.
I’d love to start, as I normally do, with a nice long anecdote, but there’s a problem. By the time you have finished reading this post there’s every chance you might just think that I’m making it all up.
Well, because the big truth I want to get across in this post is how often people lie. The spoiler here is that, unfortunately, it’s a lot.
60 percent of people lie for every ten minutes of conversation
Yes, that’s right. According to the University of Massachusetts, a whopping 60 percent of people lie to you at least once during discussions lasting ten minutes or more.
Think about how many of those you have in a week.
And what I’ve just told you is almost a white lie right there. It’s not just one lie you might hear. Oh no. The average number of lies these people told was actually two or three lies in ten minutes.
And that’s a wee bit worrying when you have a moment to take that fact in. Because, in a ten-minute conversation, they won’t be talking for all of that time. They will be listening to you chatter on as well.
So the truth-to-lies ratio for their contribution is, in a way, a lot higher.
And I just pray that you’re not one of the 60 percent as well – because the above conversation is simply not worth having then! Seriously: under those circumstances there could be two people telling six lies in ten minutes.
And, even if those figures are somehow a little off, things are still not great.
An earlier study that didn’t come to the same conclusion still said that men and women lie in a fifth of conversations lasting ten or more minutes. It found they deceive 30 percent of their work colleagues every week.
What kinds of lies are these people spreading?
Well, it’s a whole range of things. In the Massachusetts study, participants were asked to look over recorded conversations they had had. As they did, they were encouraged to identify all the lies that they had told. A lie counted as every time someone deceived someone about the facts. So that included smaller things: like if you said someone’s hair was nice (when you didn’t think it was) right through to big whoppers.
The results of this experiment also found that men and women, on the whole, lie for different reasons. Women lie to feel better about themselves, whilst men lie to look better.
But let’s break down these lies just a little bit more.
In a recent post of my own on how to spot deceptions, I also explained how there are different types of lies which aim to achieve different things. So, for example, as children we start lying because we want to test the waters in terms of getting what we want, or so we can get out of trouble. Dr Gail Saltz explained this is not malicious, it’s natural.
Lies also, according to TV’s Dr Phil, allow us to embellish our own realities. They can give us access to things we wouldn’t normally have.
This doesn’t end when we stop being kids, either. When you are late for work, or you forget someone’s birthday, you may well lie to cover your back. If you don’t then you might get into more serious trouble, or might cause offence when there was never meant to be any. Nobody intends to forget the birthday of someone they care about, for instance. Of course if you do remember to buy that gift – and the other person doesn’t like it – then they feel socially obliged to lie to you.
Of course, things can spiral out of control. Dr Paul Ekman explains that the greater the stakes, the worse we are at covering lies. So when you forget to buy someone a present and then say it’s in the mail then that’s fine. But if you are pulled over by the police over a potential speeding ticket, then a lie is less likely to pass under the radar.
Are we creating a world where we want to hear lies?
Of course what is interesting is that we already have a world where we almost want to hear lies. It sounds cynical, but I think to some extent this is true.
First off think about work. Does your boss really want to know that you have rolled into work late because you have no motivation? Or would they rather you told them you were late because of traffic? Think of it like this: which of these keeps you out of trouble, and makes them feel better?
And, in terms of your friends, these lies also persist. Like I mentioned before, you are told to say a gift is nice, even if you don’t like it, so as not to hurt someone’s feelings. This is a rule which has been pushed onto you since you were a child.
Then there’s the backbone of our digital existences – our social media. Willingly or not, we have all ended up trapped in bubbles based about our own beliefs. Twitter and Facebook – through your profile, friends, followers and advertising – surround you with things you want to hear all of the time. Example: if you’re a Trump sceptic for instance, you inevitably get people you follow and sponsored social media posts on your feed saying he’s bad. Think the opposite, all you see and read will then reflect that. How many times did you see stuff on your feed that disagreed with your point of view? Chances are not at all. Even if you have friends with differing points of view, they probably won’t go against the majority for fear of being “unfriended”.
So what happens when the truth of a matter disagrees with what you want to see? Some publications and websites then bend the truth and even tell lies to keep their readers happy. To get “clicks”. This is a problem Facebook is trying to fight, but I fear the horse has bolted. They didn’t build themselves from the ground up to deal with things like this. Social media is not a news medium, but rather a conveyor belt for the news.
Is all this lying bad for you?
Well, the answer is yes and no.
First off there is the danger, as rightly pointed out here, that exaggerations (one form of deception) can in fact damage your outlook. They include overgeneralising, catastrophising and jumping to conclusions.
Ultimately, as I have discussed before, none of these things are good for you. Overgeneralising means you think that a certain set of conditions happen all the time (often bad). The well known one is when we say it always rains on a bank holiday. Catastrophising means you have built events up in your head like they are the end of the world (“I could just die”). Meanwhile, jumping to conclusions is a mix of guesswork and mind reading which only Merlin could really pull off in real life. Merlin being, of course, a fictional character.
Normally these lead you to a very distorted view of your reality, and they can create a very depressing outlook on an otherwise perfectly good life. At worst they can lead to you making haphazard decisions about people and events which you otherwise would not make.
That’s not to say lying is all bad. I’ve already discussed how it can keep you out of trouble when the stakes are really not all that high. But, of course, lies can keep others out of harm’s way as well. Here, Thomas Plante asks us to consider Kant’s dilemma: if you saw someone running with a weapon down the street and they asked if you had seen someone run past, would you tell them if you had in fact spotted someone? An absolute “tell no lies” ethic means that you would – and that might result in serious and negative consequences.
Conclusion – people lie a lot, but it ain’t all that bad
You are surrounded by liars, then. This is true even by conservative estimates. The latest study saying that in any meaningful-length of conversation, more than half of people you know will mash up the facts.
But there’s good news. The liars often mean well. They lie to boost their image, paper over cracks in their own personal CV or to protect someone. That person they are protecting might even be you.
And the reality is we are all part of different groups and organisations that encourage porkies. That could be via social media, or a business that demands everyone pretends they are happy at work in everything they do. The world does not gear itself towards telling the truth 24-7, that’s the reality. And there are even times when lying is for the greater good.
Okay, that might not be an occasion demanded for during every ten-minute conversation, but it’s perhaps the healthiest way of looking at a very surprising set of circumstances indeed.