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How often do people lie?

Posted 8:14 a.m. Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021

The word "truth" with a magnifying glass over it, focusing on the word "lies"

Research finds people lie just a little bit day-to-day — except for a few prolific liars 

You know poker players lie, but how about family, friends or acquaintances? Are they lying? 

A new study co-authored by a UW-La Crosse faculty member may provide some reassurance.  

Most communication is honest and most lies are told by a few prolific liars, says UWL Professor Tony Docan-Morgan, who recently co-authored the publication,  "Unpacking variation in lie prevalence: Prolific liars, bad lie days, or both?” in Communication Monographs, the flagship journal of the National Communication Association.

The study examined 116,366 lies told by 632 participants over 91 consecutive days. Participants self-reported their lies daily using an online survey. About 75 % of respondents did not lie much — about zero to two lies per day. And most lies were inconsequential, little white lies like saying you like a gift you really don't. A small group — 6 % of respondents — had similarly low levels of lying on average, but had days in which they lied much more frequently.  

Unlike most previous lie studies, this new research examined lies over time instead of a one-day survey of behavior. The study’s authors found that day-to-day variance fluctuates considerably from person-to-person. People who are usually honest have days in which they lie more than is typical for them and prolific liars have days in which they tell few lies. Generally, prolific liars exhibited much more day-to-day variation than the rest of the sample. And this variance was especially true for the top 1 % of liars who averaged 17 lies per day. The only respondents who did not vary much day-to-day were the 1 % who almost never lied. 

Read more findings from the study. 

Why do people lie? Lies are told for a variety of reasons.  

  • 21 %  to avoid others 
  • 20 % as humor (a joke or a prank) 
  • 14 % to protect one’s self 
  • 13 % to impress or appear more favorable 
  • 11 % to protect another person 
  • 9 % for personal benefit or gain 
  • 5 % for the benefit of another person 
  • 2 % to hurt another person
  • 5 % unspecified reasons or, explicitly, for no reason at all 

How often do people lie? 

Most people — about 75 % of survey respondents — told zero to two lies per day. Lying comprised 7 % of total communication and almost 90 % of all lies were little white lies. 

How do people lie? 

79 % of the lies were told face-to-face and 21 % were mediated. 

Who do people lie to? 

  • 51 % - friends 
  • 21 % - family 
  • 11 % - school/business colleagues 
  • 8.9 % - strangers 
  • 8.5 % - casual acquaintances  

What types of lies do people tell the most?  

People mainly tell little white lies. 88.6 % of reported lies in the study were described as “little white lies,” and 11.4 % were characterized as “big lies.” An example of a “little white lie” would be saying you like a gift you really don't, and an example of a “big lie” would be insincerely declaring "I love you" to someone. 

About the author 

Tony Docan-Morgan

Tony Docan-Morgan teaches a UWL Communication Studies course “Lying and Deception in Human Interaction.” He also created and edited The Palgrave Handbook of Deceptive Communication (2019). "The handbook unravels the topic of lying and deception in human communication, offering an interdisciplinary and comprehensive examination of the field, presenting original research, and offering direction for future investigation and application. Highly prominent and emerging deception scholars from around the world investigate the myriad forms of deceptive behavior, cross-cultural perspectives on deceit, moral dimensions of deceptive communication, theoretical approaches to the study of deception, and strategies for detecting and deterring deceit. Truth-telling, lies, and the many grey areas in-between are explored in the contexts of identity formation, interpersonal relationships, groups and organizations, social and mass media, marketing, advertising, law enforcement interrogations, court, politics, and propaganda. This handbook is designed for advanced undergraduate and graduate students, academics, researchers, practitioners, and anyone interested in the pervasive nature of truth, deception, and ethics in the modern world.”