Lies: Why Do We Tell Them?
September 6, 2012

We’ve All Lied Before, But Why Do We Do It?

Michael Harper for — Your Universe Online

Humanity has come up with several explanations for telling half-truths or falsehoods in the years we´ve been walking upright. We often justify the telling of half-truths by saying we don´t want to hurt someone´s feelings. Sometimes we tell flat out lies in order to get ahead or take advantage of an opportunity which has just arisen. We have plenty of reasons to avoid the truth, but why do we do it?

Psychological scientists Shaul Shalvi of the University of Amsterdam and Ori Eldar and Yoella Bereby-Meyer of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev decided to investigate this behavior for themselves. Their work will be posted in the Association for Psychological Science journal Psychological Science.

Earlier studies have shown that we normally have selfish reasons when we lie, acting only to serve our own interests. Furthermore, this prior research has shown that we´re most likely to lie when we can justify the lie to ourselves, as in the example of protecting someone´s feelings or fibbing about eating the last donut.

After analyzing these prior studies, Shalvi and his team summed up that humans are more likely to lie when time is short or when they see an immediate financial gain from their lie. Shalvi and team also hypothesized that we´re more likely to be honest, even if we´re in a hurry, if we´re not given the opportunity to justify or rationalize our behavior.

“According to our theory, people first act upon their self-serving instincts, and only with time do they consider what socially acceptable behavior is,” said Shalvi.

“When people act quickly, they may attempt to do all they can to secure a profit–including bending ethical rules and lying. Having more time to deliberate leads people to restrict the amount of lying and refrain from cheating.”

In other words, this study could add significant weight to the eternal debate of whether people are inherently good or evil.

To test their hypothesis, Shalvi and crew presented 70 adult participants an easy opportunity to justify the telling of a lie.

Each adult rolled a die 3 times, careful not to show the surveyor which numbers were rolled. The participants were then asked to tell the surveyor which number was rolled on the first roll. The higher the number rolled, the more money they received from the surveyor.

These participants were therefore presented with an opportunity to justify lying about their first roll. After all, they had rolled the higher number at some point, so their answer wouldn´t have been a complete lie.

Some of these participants were asked to report their number in 20 seconds, placing them under a time constraint. Others weren´t given any time constraint and could give their answers at their leisure.

Shalvi and team never saw the results of the rolls, but compared these numbers to a control set of randomly rolled numbers to gain an insight as to what to expect from a fair set of numbers. According to these results, both groups lied, but the group under time constraint were more likely to fib about their first roll.

A second experiment closely followed the first, except the participants only rolled the dice once and reported the outcome either with a time constraint or without.

In this experiment, those with a time limit were more likely to lie, while those without any time limit did not lie.

Shalvi explained the results, saying: “People usually know it is wrong to lie, they just need time to do the right thing.”