The statement “I am a liar” has befuddled beginning philosophy students for ever. If true, it’s false; if false, it’s true. No way out. But this trap is more than just pesky logic. It also presents a relationship dilemma; when someone acknowledges having been dishonest—whether about dates or sales, office politics or golf scores—should you believe them? Should you doubt the truthfulness of subsequent communications? Or are they being dishonest about their dishonesty?
A trio of researchers (Rony Halevy, Shaul Shalvi and Bruno Verschuere) writing in the journal Human Communication Research wanted to study the frequency and distribution of lying. So, they did a survey to see how frequently people report lying. And like other researchers, they found what is called a “skewed distribution,” i.e., most people report little or no lying while a few report frequently lying.
Which brings us back to our question; are the liars lying about lying?
This is where Halevy, Shalvi, and Verschuere got clever. They brought some frequent liars into the lab to see what they actually did. Forget logic. Forget surveys. What people actually do matters.
They had them play a dice game and solve a word-jumble puzzle for money rewards. Lying was both undetectable and resulted in larger payouts. You cheat, you get more. What they found was that those who said they lied frequently actually did so. And those who did not, did not.
What this means is that people tend to be honest about lying. And what that means is that it’s probably a good idea to rely on what is called a “truth bias”—a strategy of believing other people—unless you discover that someone is dishonest or (and this is the new piece from this research) they tell you they are.
And that’s the take home; trust someone when they tell you they are not trustworthy.