Sitting face to face, new acquaintances are likely to lie to each other three times in 10 minutes.
It doesn't surprise Robert Feldman, who has conducted research on lying for four decades and writes about the psychology of deception in his new book, The Liar in Your Life: The Way to Truthful Relationships .
"Our relationship to lying is far more intimate than the occasional encounter with a duplicitous mechanic or dishonest lover," writes the University of Massachusetts psychology professor. "Lying is something we do automatically, unthinkingly."
Dr. Feldman believes people are deceiving each other with increasing frequency. He says even little white lies are toxic: Our own dishonesty makes us trust others less, creates a climate for greater lies and hinders our own growth.
"Lies prevent us from getting a good idea of who we are," he said in an interview. "Some degree of our current interactions with others are going to be fairly emotionally empty. They're conversations that occur without true depth and without real meaning."
Although lying deadens meaningful connection, lies do work well on the surface.
People often lie for "utility," said Dr. Feldman, adding that fibs can act as a social lubricant and raise the liar's social status.
This is often the case in work environments. Amber, who did not want her last name used, said lies come up at the Toronto public relations firm where she works when someone doesn't want to look "stupid or uninformed." Beyond internal politics, she acknowledges, her line of work involves "massaging the truth."
"I don't think anyone would use the word 'lying' at work. It's just part of what you do. You're there to service clients and do the best job possible, and sometimes you have to do whatever it takes."
Although some of her colleagues thrive on the spin, Amber said, she finds it "tiring." She says her job has tainted her view of the world: "You take things with a grain of salt."
Dr. Feldman acknowledges that in many cases, "the emotional stakes behind a lie can be very low." This was apparent in his 2001 study, in which pairs of strangers became acquainted over the course of 10 minutes. He videotaped the sessions and had individual participants review the footage with him afterward, asking them to identify the points where they had said something "inaccurate." (He avoided using the word "lie" so as not to spook them.)
One man had boasted that his rock band had just signed with a label when his musical experience was in fact limited to a "couple chords." A woman claimed falsely that she'd made the honour society. Some had lied 12 times - more than once a minute. Most of the lies were told to impress the new acquaintance.
Dr. Feldman's findings echoed another study conducted by Bella DePaulo and her colleagues at the University of Virginia in 1996. This time, 147 people aged 18 to 71 were asked to keep a journal of all the lies they told throughout one week. Most people lied once or twice a day, and most saw their lies as "no big deal."
"One out of four were altruistic lies. Twice as many were lies told to make the liar look good or feel good. It's all these ways of being your own PR person. … In our perverse view, any conversation is an opportunity to tell a lie," said Dr. DePaulo, now a visiting professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
In 2004, Dr. DePaulo published another study about more serious lies, such as affairs and fabrications that damaged someone's reputation. Some 160 participants described 235 grave lies, including ones they'd told and ones they'd been told.
Paradoxically, she found that people lied to save their loved ones hurt, which speaks to how insidious even elaborate deception can be.
"People tell more of these serious lies to the people in their life that they care about the most," Dr. DePaulo said.
A world free of lies is hardly feasible, but some are endeavouring. Brad Blanton, author and psychotherapist, is the founder of a movement called "Radical Honesty," which preaches absolute truthfulness, all the time. Dr. Blanton runs boot camps from his centre in Virginia, where participants are instructed not to lie for eight days. Dr. Blanton sees many people "from the media and government agencies" and also counsels couples dealing with a crisis in trust.
"There are people who are thinking about splitting up, and there are a lot of singles who come and they're looking to start up relationships in a different way than usual," Dr. Blanton said.
Others employ technical tactics to deal with liars. Lie-detection expert Paul Ekman, who consults for Fox's drama Lie To Me , says anyone can tell a liar by learning how to read facial cues, or microexpressions and microgestures.
Dr. Feldman, meanwhile, recommends practising a technique he calls "active honesty assessment." Even though people lie so often, they assume others are telling the truth: Dr. Feldman calls this the "truth bias." He encourages people to switch to a "falsehood bias," or maintaining "an awareness that everything you are told could be a lie," and then ferreting out what you care about.
He also advocates ending the reliance on reassuring falsehoods, which "can be a balm for our imperilled ego." He suggests asking for support when you need it, and clarifying specifically when you want an honest opinion.
Ultimately, Dr. Feldman writes that people concerned about liars in their life should learn to "be more comfortable with uncertainty."
As for the liars, he suggests imagining the consequences and beseeches readers to "try to lie less."
Liar, Liar Jr.
Verbal lies can start as early as age 2, says professor and author Robert Feldman. At that age, lies are reflexive attempts to avoid punishment. "Polite" social lies emerge around age 4, with peer interaction.
Dr. Feldman said it is parents who teach children, who are typically brutally honest, how to lie. It begins with the social lie, the one that's polite: Don't tell Grandma her present blows. It also involves colluding in parental lies, such as telling Dad's boss he isn't home if the office calls after hours or on the weekend.