The Science of Lying

03/18/2015 06:44 pm ET | Updated May 18, 2015


I want to bust some myths about lying by unveiling the truth about dishonesty. Some questions answered in this article:

  • Do good liars have a higher IQ?
  • Which country cheats the most?
  • Who lies more, bankers or politicians?

In this post I am going to take some of the best learnings from our February Book Club book, The Honest Truth About Dishonesty (by Dan Ariely) and the most interesting tidbits from the research on deception.

Lying is a part of human nature.

Even if we don't want to admit it, we all lie. You're a liar. I'm a liar. We lie to others and we lie to ourselves. But here's what's interesting-lying is not rational.

There is some surprising science about lying that will not only help you understand your fellow human beings, but it will also show you how to have more honest relationships, communication and work environments. Read on to find out why.

1. Lying Is Not Rational

Do you believe in SMORC? The Simple Model of Rational Crime (SMORC) says that we decide whether or not to lie or cheat based on an internal cost benefit analysis of 3 factors:

  • The benefit you gain by lying or committing a crime
  • The probability of getting caught
  • The extent of the expected punishment if you are caught

In other words, we don't really think about what is moral or ethical; we decide to cheat or not based on a rational cost benefit analysis. If this were the case, the simple answer to curbing crime and lying would be to have extremely high punishments and lots of watchdogs-police, surveillance cameras and audits. But here's the problem. SMORC is false. Dan Ariely tested the SMORC principle in the lab and found that our cheating is not rational and has very little to do with a cost benefit analysis. Lying is not an internal struggle with pros and cons, it is an internal struggle about how you view yourself...

2. I am NOT a Liar

Remember when I called you a liar at the beginning of this article? Did that make you flinch? Mentally uncomfortable? Angry? We hate to think of ourselves as liars. Research about dishonesty finds that we have 2 conflicting impulses:

  • The desire to get ahead
  • The desire to think of ourselves as a good person

Our survive and thrive instincts tell us to cheat, lie and steal to be on top of the food chain. But our communal instincts tell us to be an honest, kind and authentic person. So, while the threat of getting caught or a big punishment can dissuade us from telling the truth, our desire to be a good person is even more powerful. However, there are times when the reward for lying or cheating is higher than our desire to be a good person. And that's where the Fudge Factor comes in.

3. The Fudge Factor

In order to get the benefits of lying without the shame of feeling like a liar, our brain engages in some tricky rationalization and self-deception. The Fudge Factor is what we do when we allow ourselves to engage in small amounts of cheating or lying so we still feel like a good person. Ariely says it nicely, "We cheat up to the level that allows us to retain our self-image as reasonable honest individuals." In this way, we rationalize small amounts of lying without feeling too guilty. This is because we don't want to miss out on the small rewards cheating might give us, but at the end of the day we still want to be able to look at ourselves in the mirror and feel good. The amount of cheating that happens is equal to the desire for gain minus the desire to be a good person.

  • The catch is we each have our own limit. For example, have you ever left a bowl of candy outside your door on Halloween and asked visitors to take "Just one piece per trick or treater?" If you want to see the failure of SMORC and the use of the Fudge Factor in action, I recommend you try it. Here's what will happen. Very few kids will only take one piece of candy. Most kids approach the bowl and take 2 pieces of candy-just one more than the "rule." In this way, they get extra candy but don't feel too bad about themselves for doing it. Few kids will take 3 pieces and the occasional kid will dump the entire bowl into his bag. This is the perfect example of how we each have different limits on the Fudge Factor.

4. What Makes Us Lie More

There are certain things that make the Fudge Factor grow. Ariely found that when people feel distanced from the consequences they steal more. For example, using tokens instead of money distances people from feeling like they are actually stealing money, and they therefore take more. Ariely also found that when you remind someone of their past achievements (even if those are false) people steal more because they rationalize that they deserve it. Or perhaps their internal 'good person' thermometer is already high, so stealing or cheating a little bit is ok-hence a larger Fudge Factor. If we think we can benefit others with our lies, we lie more. Altruistic motives make us feel that we are still good people so the Fudge Factor is larger. For example, if one trick-or-treater was getting candy for himself and his baby sister, he would be inclined to take even more candy from the bowl.

  • Take-Away: Beware of a cashless society. Credit cards, chips, tokens and representations of money increase the chances of having someone steal.

5. What Makes Us Lie Less

Luckily, there are a number of things we can do to encourage people to lie less. These center around reminding someone that they are a good person and the need for honesty should be upheld.

  • Take-Away: Use honor codes. When we have people sign honor codes they are less likely to cheat. This decreases the Fudge Factor because you are specifically asking someone to be a good person.
  • Take-Away: Remind people of their morality and the need for honesty. Having people sign a document before and after with an honesty pledge or stating to a group the need for honesty can help remind people of their own ethics.
  • Take-Away: Have people take an oath. When people state out loud the need for honesty, they are less likely to cheat.
  • Take-Away: When people think they are being watched, they cheat less. This goes back to SMORC which increases the potential for being caught. This even worked with a drawing of an eyeball-so no one was actually watching, but the eye had the implication of being watched. This reminded people of their desire to be a good person if viewed by others.

6. Do Liars Have Higher IQ?

When Ariely tested liars' IQ, he found that liars are not smarter than non-liars. However, they are more creative. Really good liars are creative and strategic about both rationalization and self-deception. They can come up with (and believe) elaborate tales that both convince them of their morality and justify their lying (extreme Fudge Factor behavior ensues). The more creative a person, the more they tend to cheat. Ariely even found that when he primed average subjects to feel more creative, their lying behavior increased.

7. The "What the Hell Effect"

When someone has already cheated a little bit, they might have the tendency to keep going. In other words, they think "I'm already a cheater, so what the hell, I'm going all the way." People who were told that they were wearing fake designer sunglasses while completing a challenge cheated more than people who were wearing genuine sunglasses (they were actually identical). Once someone thought they were already 'cheating' by wearing fake sunglasses they cheated more on the task.

  • Take-Away: The Broken Windows Theory should apply to lying as well. Don't brush off one small lie. Once it starts, it's hard to stop it. Remind people of what makes them lie less...

8. Interesting...

Some other interesting findings about lying.

  • Ariely found that liars do feel guilty. In fact, liars who cheat more on a task end up giving themselves more electric shocks in a follow-up activity. It's almost as if they are punishing themselves for the cheating they just did.
  • Which country lies the most? Ariely found no difference across cultures. The average amount of lying on his tasks was the same in the US, Italy, China and beyond.
  • Which occupation lies the most? Ariely found that bankers cheated twice as much as politicians!

Now that you know the science of lying, how are you going to encourage more honesty in your relationships?

Want to learn to be a human lie detector?

Check out our article on the 7 steps of deception detection.