Friday, July 30, 2010

Pants on Fire

Bluntschli to Raina in Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw:

"You said you'd told only two lies in your whole life. Dear young lady: isn't that rather a short allowance? I'm quite a straightforward man myself; but it wouldn't last me a whole morning."

Most likely it wouldn't last ten minutes, at least according to the Journal of Basic and Applied Psychology. Researchers taped ordinary conversations among subjects who were not told the point of the study. Some of the subjects knew each other, but most did not. Nearly all were convinced they had spoken honestly when questioned afterward, and said so. The subjects then were asked to review the tapes. All were surprised at how much they had fibbed. 60 percent of them had lied at least once during a 10-minute conversation; the average was "2.92 inaccurate things." There were no evident personal gains from any of the lies, other than minor status enhancements from social posturing. Men and women lied with equal frequency, though they lied somewhat differently. Men often bragged overtly while women tended to be more subtle, by flattering a potential ally for example. The subjects lied more often to strangers than to acquaintances, but perhaps it was just easier to fool strangers.

Said Twain (who credited Disraeli), "there are lies, damned lies, and statistics," and so I suspect "2.92," though pleasingly precise, underreports reality. After all, researchers had to rely on the subjects to admit their deceptions.

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