July 22, 2021

In 1996, 77 college students kept a diary of their social interactions every day for a week, noting all the lies that they told, whom they told them to, and their reasons for telling them.

According to an article titled “Lying in Everyday Life” published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, students told two lies per day on average. That translated into about one lie in every three encounters. In general, women told as many lies as men, but those tended to differ in substance, with women tending to lie to make people feel better and men to make themselves look better.

When that article appeared in June 1996, I had been doing a similar diary exercise for about six years in my media ethics classes at Ohio University. Students received these instructions:

  1. In a personal journal, for a period of one week, keep track of all the white lies, half-truths and falsehoods that you say or indicate to others. Under each incident or item, briefly note the immediate, future or possible consequences of the lie.
  2. Keep track of all the white lies, half-truths and falsehoods that others say or indicate to you. Under each incident or item, briefly note the immediate, future or possible consequences of the lie.
  3. Keep track of times when you wanted to tell a white lie, half-truth or falsehood … but caught yourself and told the truth or declined to answer the question (doing so in a polite, discreet, or otherwise appropriate way).
  4. In your personal journal, write about what you learned from the exercise.

I continued this exercise through my tenure at OU, ending in 2003. On average, students told between two to six lies per day underestimating the consequences, caught others in a lie every other day dispensing swift consequences, and were tempted to lie but told the truth about once or twice a week. Essentially, that meant students were interacting in an environment of lies as many went undiscovered with liars seemingly escaping consequences.

Lying happens in every teacher’s classroom (and doubtless in newsrooms, too). Students often are less than truthful when explaining why they failed to complete or hand in an assignment on time. In one study, some 1,000 instructors were asked to submit their most spurious excuses, with these making the top list:

  1. “The Wi-Fi stopped working.”
  2. “It seemed easy when we did it in class.”
  3. “I was on social media.”
  4. “I had a date last night.”
  5. “I have other classes.”
  6. “It’s not you, it’s me.”
  7. “I left my sunroof open and a raccoon stole the assignment from my car.”
  8. “I was at the carwash and the bumper fell off my car. I had to deal with insurance, etc.”
  9. “I was arrested for selling T-shirts on the interstate.”
  10. “I made the Olympic national team.”

These are “little lies” of the ancient genre, “My dog ate my homework,” which Slate reporter Forrest Wickman dates back to sixth-century Saint Ciarán of Clonmacnoise who claimed a fox ate his psalms.

The dog/homework lie has duped others for centuries, primarily because of plausible deniability. Dogs chew on everything, including homework. You can’t interrogate a hound. Liars then can assert they indeed did the assignment but can offer no proof because the evidence was digested.

As common as the dog/homework lie was former President Donald Trump’s big one that the 2020 election was “rigged.” According to The New York Times, his post-election tactics put him in the company of dictators who cried voter fraud to reverse election results.

Big and little lies have one thing in common. You have to tell more of them to shore up the original falsehood.

A Washington Post article, “Trump’s ‘Big Lie’ was bigger than just a stolen election,” cited these follow-up untruths: GOP legislators would overturn the election; courts failed to consider the merits of his complaint; the Supreme Court would intervene on his behalf; and Vice President Mike Pence would proclaim him winner on Jan. 20.

Journalists who want to know more about the history of falsehood should read Sissela Bok’s “Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life” (1999, Vintage Books) in which she also dissects our lying culture. Bok was skeptical at attempts to measure how many lies people tell each day “given the proportion of lies that are never uncovered, the shady regions of half-truths, self-deception, and hypocrisy, and the motives for those most embroiled in lies to undercut all efforts to probe their attitudes.”

To make this point to ethics students in fall 2019 and early spring 2020, we studied lies, deceit and secrecy in the first impeachment trial of Trump. At the time, The Washington Post reported that he had told more than 12,000 lies since taking office in such venues as press briefings, rallies and, especially, tweets. At the time, the president’s use of social media was unprecedented in the White House.

The study

Like Trump, students live in two environments: interpersonal and digital. According to the Pew Research Center, some 90% of adults aged 18 to 29 use at least one social media platform. That gave me an idea to add another component to my lying journal exercise: “Do the same exercise only this time, also keep track of all the digital lies you told in a week, the number you suspect told to you digitally, and the times you were tempted to lie digitally but told the truth.”

In fall 2019, 21 students were given extra credit to participate in the convenience study. Results were similar to those cited in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology study with students telling on average 20 lies per week (13 interpersonal and 7 digital) or about three per day. They told 276 interpersonal lies, catching others in lies only 133 times, and were tempted to lie face to face but told the truth 123 times. They told 139 digital lies, catching others in lies 122 times, with a scant 57 times being tempted to lie but telling the truth.

In spring 2020, 30 students participated. Students told on average 16 lies per week (11 interpersonal and five digital) or about 2.3 per day. They told 332 interpersonal lies, catching others in lies only 174 times, and were tempted to lie face to face but told the truth 160 times. They told 162 digital lies, catching others in lies 198 times. On 130 occasions they were tempted to lie but telling the truth.

Of course, this was not a formal study as the limitations are many and formidable. But results were intriguing enough, especially since data from two classes each semester tended to mirror each other.

Combining data from class sections, I observed how adept students were at discerning online falsehood. They caught others in online lies slightly more than they themselves told them. Conversely, in face-to-face interactions, half of all lies went undetected. This may have played a role in the relatively low number of digital lies, in as much as students knew how easily those lies are detected. Hence, they told them less often.

Student confessions

In comments, students disclosed that they had sent or received texts containing lies. Instagram selfies and posed photos also were popular venues for exaggeration and half-truths. No one mentioned video platforms such as Skype or Zoom or Messenger chat. This is telling in two ways.

People who lie face-to-face can deflect suspicion by voice, body language and other physical traits. They can appear relaxed or make eye contact or otherwise appear to be authentic. Conversely, digital natives are skeptical about the nature of the internet. Studies have shown that Generation Z logs off any website that misleads and/or doesn’t fulfill needs; they want their online experience and interactions to be authentic and transparent.

In sum, students in fall 2019 and spring 2020 were are apt to lie about 2.5 times per day (1.7 interpersonally and 0.8 digitally) and on average told 18 lies per week (approximately 12 interpersonally and six digitally).

Participants said the exercise made an impact on them. One acknowledged how easy it was to lie digitally and how skeptical he has become over time.

“Anyone can post a picture of anything to make it seem like they are having a better time than they actually are or say they are somewhere where they actually aren’t,” he wrote. “A lot of people lie digitally to make it seem like they are living a better and more fulfilling life than what is really reality.”

Another wrote, “Throughout the lying exercise I realized I lie a lot without even noticing. At first, it was hard to catch myself lying, but as the week went on, I paid more attention to what I was saying and what others were saying to determine if they were lying to me.”

Students made self-discoveries. “One thing I learned from this exercise is I do not think about telling a lie before I do. The only reason I caught myself saying a lie in the last week was because of this exercise. Usually, I would not have stopped and told the truth.”

Students labeled most of their interpersonal and digital falsehoods as so-called white lies. Some wanted to appear more likable. One wrote, “When doing the experiment I learned that I am the type of person who does not say what I mean. The reason for this is because I don’t want to burn bridges or want everyone to not like me.”

Another wrote that she found herself more willing to lie in telephone calls, texts and social media than face to face. “I think I subconsciously spit out little white lies here and there in person but they are nothing extravagant.”

Yet another student acknowledged that he lies more often than he hitherto believed. “A vast majority are white lies, and unnecessary.” He told such lies to “important people in my life. Certainly, there were many times I caught myself in live action and corrected myself — but the sum of white lies added up quicker than I anticipated.”

Only a few shared instances where they were tempted to lie but told the truth. A mother asked a student about the status of an assignment that they had discussed previously. “I hadn’t made an ounce of progress on it, but I said it was going well and I had turned it in,” the student recounted. “I started laughing and smiling while telling her this and I couldn’t even get the words out before saying, ‘Mom, I just lied to your face. I genuinely did not do the assignment.’ We had a good laugh about it.”

In a follow-up lecture, students were informed about the significance of truth-telling, including the impact of white lies.

The lesson

An article in Nature Neuroscience notes that small lies increase in number and escalate in scope over time, with the brain actually adapting to self-serving dishonesty in the region associated with emotions, or amygdala. Authors write, “The findings uncover a biological mechanism that supports a ‘slippery slope’: what begins as small acts of dishonesty can escalate into larger transgressions.”

In other words, pathological liars may not know the difference between truth and falsehood and may come to believe their fibs as fact — an observation that puts Trump’s tsunami of lies into troubling perspective. That millions not only still believe but also act upon them, as in the Jan. 6 insurrection, is testament that we are living in the age of post truth, at least when it comes to democratic norms.

The neurological study also affirmed an observation from Sissela Bok who questioned whether white lies are harmless. “What the liar perceives as harmless or even beneficial may not be so in the eyes of the deceived,” she writes, adding that small lies usually escalate to “more frequent and more serious ones.”

That, of course, is the lesson in media ethics, especially since students eventually will work in advertising, journalism and public relations. Interpersonal lies at the workplace may go undetected for a time, but the likelihood of frequency and escalation can undermine a career. Likewise, falsehoods of any magnitude are amplified by global platforms disseminating content to diverse audiences. As such, it is critical that students understand the nature and consequences of lies and their propensity to tell them before they enter their chosen professions.

During the experiment, Poynter published an article about the ethics of reporting lies. Roy Peter Clark noted that sources tell lies, and journalists expose them. But he wondered whether reporting lies also spread them to a wider audience. He noted the importance of starting with the truth, exposing the lie, and then returning to the truth for emphasis.

That’s a useful tip. Here’s another: Journalists not only should expose liars and affirm the truth; they also should be cognizant of their own lies and the frequency that they tell them.

You can’t be a truth-seeker if you’re also a liar — the moral in media ethics.

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Michael Bugeja, distinguished professor of liberal arts and sciences, is author of Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine (Oxford Univ. Press) and Living…
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