Obviously some people lie more often than others. What’s surprising is new research showing that the spread of lying propensity through the population is uneven. There is a large majority of “everyday liars”, and a small minority of “prolific liars”.
A few years ago Kim Serota and his colleagues put a figure on this. They surveyed a thousand US citizens and found that five per cent of the sample were responsible for 50 per cent of all lies told. Now Serota’s group have analysed data from nearly 3000 people in the UK and they’ve found the same pattern – the existence in the population of a minority of extremely prolific liars.
This new online survey is based on data collected as part of a public engagement project by the Science Museum in London in the Spring of 2010. Participants (51 per cent were female; average age 44.5) reported how often they told little white lies and how often they told big lies, as well as sharing their attitudes to, and experiences of lying.
The spread of answers was clearly skewed. Serota’s statistical analysis showed that 9.7 per cent of the UK sample were prolific liars. They averaged 6.32 little white lies per day and 2.86 big lies per day, compared with an average of 1.16 daily white lies and 0.15 daily big lies (about one per week) by the majority group of everyday liars. This means the prolific liars tell an average of 19 big lies for each single big lie by the everyday liars. The two groups generally agreed what counts as a big lie, with lying about whether you love someone being the most popular example.
The research also uncovered some intriguing differences between prolific and everyday liars. Prolific liars were more likely to be younger, male and to work in more senior occupational roles, although note these differences were modest. Prolific liars tended not to see lying as something that people grow out of. They were also most likely to lie to their partners and children (whereas everyday liars were most likely to lie to their mothers). Prolific liars were also more likely to say that their lying had landed them in trouble, including losing jobs and relationships.
Caution is required because of the different survey methods used, but this new research also allows a cross-cultural comparison between US and UK lying. Combining everyday and prolific liars, it seems that people lie more frequently in the UK – just over two lies per day on average, compared with an average of between one and two lies per day in the US, based on Serota’s earlier research. Another statistic – 24.4 per cent of the UK sample said they didn’t lie on a typical day, compared with 59.9 per cent of the US sample.
An obvious problem with this research is its dependence on people’s honesty about how often they lie. We’re in a somewhat bizarre situation of trusting prolific liars’ answers about their own lying. However, Serota and his colleague Tim Levine reassure us that past research has generally found self-reported lying to be fairly accurate. When more objective or third-party measures of lying are deployed, these usually correlate well with people’s self-reported lying rates. The current survey was anonymous, which would have helped.
The finding that lying frequency is distributed unevenly in the population has serious implications for deception research, most of which assumes that lying propensity is a “normally distributed” trait more like height or weight. “These data provide a strong case that the people who tell a lot of lies are not only different,” said Serota and Levine, “they are a population that needs to be studied independently of everyday liars in order to better understand the motivation and production of lies.” I wonder if future research might find that “prolific liars” are the same people who score highly on the Dark Triad of personality traits – psychopathy, narcissism and Machiavellianism?
Serota, K., & Levine, T. (2014). A Few Prolific Liars: Variation in the Prevalence of Lying Journal of Language and Social Psychology DOI: 10.1177/0261927X14528804