Mothers who feel their children don’t appreciate them can add another grievance to the list: half the time, their offspring are lying to them. A study designed to reveal the truth about lying shows that undergraduates lie to their mothers in 46 per cent of their conversations. Still, mums fare better than total strangers, who are told lies an astonishing 77 per cent of the time.
Bella DePaulo and a team of psychologists from the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, asked 77 undergraduates and 70 local townspeople to keep a record of all their conversations for a week, and jot down whether they lied at any time. DePaulo defined lying as ‘when you intentionally try to mislead someone’, so she would catch the smallest of lies.
The students told an average of two lies a day, while the others lied once a day. They said they had been studying when they had been out with friends. One told his parents that a textbook cost $50 rather than $20 – so that they would send him extra money. Female students constantly told their plain-looking room-mates that they were pretty. ‘They’re everyday lies,’ says DePaulo.
DePaulo and her colleagues conclude that people tend to tell fewer lies to those they feel closest to. College students lied to their best friends 28 per cent of the time but lied to acquaintances 48 per cent of the time. In close relationships, people were more likely to tell ‘kind-hearted’ lies, designed to protect feelings, rather than self-serving lies. ‘In short, don’t expect even your closest friend to tell you about your hideous taste in sweaters,’ says DePaulo.
Romantic partners fall somewhere between close friends and acquaintances on the dishonesty spectrum. Both students and people outside university lied to romantic partners about a third of the time. DePaulo thinks that unmarried lovers can expect less honesty than best friends because of the insecurity that comes with romance.
DePaulo thinks the results are representative of society as a whole because the two groups had such similar patterns of lying behaviour. She also believes those taking part were telling the truth about lying. The researchers grilled them vigorously to check whether they had written misleading reports.
Mothers can take heart from one other finding. They may have been lied to, but at least their children talked to them. The students recorded telling few lies to fathers – because they had virtually no interaction with them.
Vincent Kiernan, Washington