Hi NSQers. We’re off this week, so we’re sharing one of our favorite episodes from the early days of the show. We’ll be back next week with a brand new episode. In the meantime, enjoy this conversation from the NSQ archive.
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DUCKWORTH: “Wow, maybe she doesn’t really have it together.”
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DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.
DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner.
DUCKWORTH + DUBNER: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.
Today on the show: When is it okay to tell a lie?
DUBNER: I feel that I get more honest the older I get. Or maybe it’s just “cranky” is the better word.
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DUBNER: Hello, Angela!
DUBNER: I hope you don’t mind me asking you a fairly personal question, but I want to know: how many times a day do you tell a lie? And when and why is it okay to lie? And maybe the answer to both questions is “never,” but I think that would put you well outside the normal range of humans.
DUCKWORTH: I would like to say that I go days, if not weeks or months, without a single lie.
DUCKWORTH: I said, “I would like to say that.”
DUBNER: Oh, you’d like to say that. I would like to be 6’5″.
DUCKWORTH: Right. Okay. I do think, though, Stephen, that, if we define a lie as intentional deception, then I definitely go days without lying. I’m not saying that every day I go without lying. I’m going to just ballpark this and say that my average lying rate is 0.5 lies per day.
DUBNER: Okay, so you’re A.L.R. — average lying rate — is 0.5 daily. How do you think that compares to the rest of humankind?
DUCKWORTH: I would imagine — and I’m guessing this, in part, because I’m pretty familiar with Dan Ariely, the psychologist, and his research on lying. And he says that most people lie a little — not many people lie a lot, but most people lie a little — and by the way, when I’m talking about a lie every other day, that includes white lies.
DUBNER: So, give me an example of your median lie.
DUCKWORTH: For example, if somebody asks me to review an article for a scientific journal, and I click, “No, I decline.” And then the next screen says, “Why are you not able to review this article?” And the default response is, “I don’t have expertise,” I usually just press “next.” I don’t think, like, “Oh, God, I should probably be honest,” which is to say that, “This journal is terrible. Are you kidding? I would never review for this journal, actually.”
DUBNER: So, this leads to the question of — I guess you’d call them “prompted lies” versus “unprompted lies,” perhaps. Right?
DUCKWORTH: Like, as in, in response to this conversational cue, or this request, I’m now lying versus, like, just spontaneously telling an untruth?
DUBNER: Maybe not “spontaneously,” but maybe a little bit more driven by some internal incentive. Like, I want to get something, or I want to avoid something, and therefore, I will proactively create a different version of the truth.
DUCKWORTH: Let’s call that “first-degree lying.” Right, like I can’t call to mind a single instance of first-degree lying, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t done it. I’m sure I have. I’m just saying that, “wow, that seems bad, Stephen, and I hope I don’t do it very often.”
DUBNER: I wonder if it would be useful to create a lying matrix for ourselves. So, here’s my little attempt. There’d be big lies and little lies, and then there’d be lies for self-gain and lies for, let’s say, the benefit of others.
DUCKWORTH: So, like, prosocial versus personally-motivated.
DUBNER: Or at least neutral. So, you’d have your big lies for self-gain, small lies for self-gain, big lies for the benefit of others or neutral, and small lies for the benefit of others. I think everybody could imagine what’s most desirable and terrible about that matrix. Telling a big lie for self-gain sounds pretty terrible, yeah?
DUCKWORTH: Oh, yes. Absolutely. Like, lying so that you can get the vaccine earlier than other people or cheating on your taxes. I mean, these are all lies for personal gain.
DUBNER: Or, like, saying things on your resume that aren’t true, which is apparently a very common lie.
DUCKWORTH: Mmm. Interesting. Yes. So, we’re all in consensus that lying in a big way for personal gain: bad.
DUBNER: Now, what about a big lie for the benefit of others?
DUCKWORTH: Like Jean Valjean in Les Misérables?
DUBNER: Ooh. Isn’t there something called “The Valjean Effect” in the psych literature about lying? I’m looking at this paper by Williams, Pizarro, Dan Ariely, and J.D. Weinberg called “The Valjean Effect: Visceral States and Cheating.” This is from the journal Emotion. That’s a nice name for a journal, it’s like Smokey Robinson.
DUCKWORTH: It’s a good journal.
DUBNER: Is it?
DUCKWORTH: I would definitely do a review for Emotion.
DUBNER: They write that visceral states — like thirst, hunger, and fatigue — can alter our motivations, predictions, and even memory. And they demonstrate that these so-called “hot states” can shift moral standards and increase dishonest behavior. It’s a form of behavior driven by incentives, right? Well, Jean Valjean — as many of us may remember from reading or seeing some version of Les Misérables — he stole a loaf of bread because he was starving and had no money. And then spent, I think, 19 years in prison, was released, but was then given a kind of scarlet letter for being a forever-criminal. And so, I guess the Valjean Effect is about the fact that he was in a state — a hot state, a hungry state — where he needed to do something dishonest, which was taking bread that did not belong to him. It would seem to make sense, I think, to just about every human, that cheating, or stealing, or lying when under — if not duress, then under some, you know, pretty strong emotional motivation — we’d be more likely to do it. But you and I aren’t really talking about lying in a hot state. We’re talking about lying in a neutral state.
DUCKWORTH: At least that’s what I’m thinking about when you say, “Angela, about how many times a day do you tell a lie?” You know, not under duress, not starving, not dying of thirst.
DUBNER: Let me ask you this, my dear friend: do you think you would be interested in, let’s say, an app, or some kind of tracking paraphernalia, where you’d be able to learn exactly how often you tell a lie?
DUCKWORTH: If I had, like, the equivalent of a pedometer?
DUBNER: Yeah. A built-in lie detector. But you’re the only one with the data. Do you think you might, perhaps, lie more or less than you think? Because part of it is the lies we tell other people, and then there are the lies we tell ourselves.
DUCKWORTH: I would love to have an app if I believed that, uh — what’s that word for a lie detector? Poly-something? Isn’t it, like, a polygraph?
DUBNER: I think “polygraph” is the right word.
DUCKWORTH: Okay, anyway, if there were a reliable polygraph — and I don’t know whether the science says that those polygraphs are reliable or not, right? I think they’re based on skin conductance and, like, sweating associated with lying. And then, if it were really possible, yeah, I’d go for it. Totally. I’m all into this kind of, like, self-improvement in all possible ways.
DUBNER: And what would happen if this polygraph app told you that you were lying a lot more than one-half a day?
DUCKWORTH: If I believed it, if I thought, “Oh, yeah, there you go. That wasn’t exactly true. I hadn’t thought about all this motivated reasoning that’s happening in the moment,” I think I would begin to lie less. Because I do think lying erodes the trust we have in other people.
DUBNER: So, that’s the external cost of lying. But what about the internal? How does lying change one’s self-perception as a person of integrity? That’s important to most of us.
DUCKWORTH: It’s interesting to think about what it means to lie to yourself, and why that’s bad — if it’s bad. And by the way, many psychologists — and I think neuroscience would be in rough consensus with this — that in a real sense, there are multiple selves. There’s, like, tired Angela, and energetic Angela, and there’s Angela with a lot of other people around, and there’s Angela all by herself, and future Angela, and present Angela, and past Angela. And I think the idea that one of the Angelas could be lying to the other Angelas would probably cause some kind of distress to have that inner dissonance.
DUBNER: Of all those Angelas that you just named — and there were many, and I’m sure there are many more. I’m sure there’s pizza Angela, and sushi Angela, chopped-liver Angela — which one lies the most, or maybe the least?
DUCKWORTH: Well, if you believe the Dan Ariely study that you were just talking about, then I think it would be some kind of distressed Angela, desperate Angela, instrumentally lying to get her way. And maybe that’s why — if I am roughly accurate in my belief that I’m not inclined much to lying — maybe it’s because I’m privileged. And maybe because I have not a lot of need. I’m, like, the opposite of Jean Valjean, right? I don’t need to steal a loaf of bread to feed my family. I don’t need to lie about my credentials. There’s not a lot of duress, honestly, in my life.
Still to come on No Stupid Questions, Stephen and Angela discuss how our propensity to lie changes with age.
DUBNER Is there a period where a child is capable of talking and doesn’t lie? Or does the lying start as soon as they can talk?
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Now, back to Stephen and Angela’s conversation about the psychology of lying.
DUBNER: So, I am looking here at some research by Ipsos, the market research firm, surveyed about a thousand Americans about their views on lying. Sixty-four percent said that lying was sometimes justified, 36 percent said never justified. Now, we don’t know how many of them were lying about that answer. Does that result strike you as believable? Useful?
DUCKWORTH: It does strike me that there are occasions on which the lie is a price that you’re willing to pay for some greater good. And Barry Schwartz — our common friend and a psychologist now at Berkeley — Barry would very often bring out the example of: your wife wants to show you her new dress. And she says, “How does it look?” And you’re thinking, “It makes your ass look a mile wide.” And the question is: do you tell the truth? Barry probably wouldn’t have been so crass in his description, but Barry would say that’s an example where honesty, which is obviously a virtue, should be trumped by something else like empathy, and that’s also a virtue. So, I think those Americans who say, “Hey, there are occasions on which lying is a good thing,” are probably thinking about the white lies that we tell each other and maybe even ourselves in — in moments where there’s a greater virtue.
DUBNER: We have that scenario, exactly, in my house all the time. Not “is my ass a mile wide” scenario, but my wife will put on some thing — it might be an outfit, or shoes, or maybe a piece of jewelry — and say, “This one or that one?” Or, “Do you like this?” And I have learned to be very honest with her, because my wife is very honest in those kind of things.
DUCKWORTH: And she wants that.
DUBNER: But what’s interesting is that she will often — in fact, I would say almost always — disagree or overrule me. She’ll come out with, like, black shoe on one foot and a brown shoe on the other, and say, “Which of these do you think goes with this outfit?” And I look at it, and I’ll say, “The black.” She’s like, “Okay, yeah, I’m wearing the brown.” Now, what’s interesting is, I was so conditioned when we first got married, years and years ago, to do the opposite — to do the, the Barry Schwartz, you know, just —.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. “You look great!”
DUBNER: Yeah. Fish around for what she wanted to hear, and then go with that. Or, “They both look fantastic! I couldn’t imagine any third shoe in the world looking better.” So, maybe I’ve been informed by marriage in that way. But I really do — I mean, what I’m about to say is so self-serving, I can’t believe I’m about to say it, because I’m sure everyone would say this — but I really do try to not lie. And I think about why, and I think there are at least two reasons. One is, it feels terrible. It just feels like a small but significant emotional trauma every time you tell a lie.
DUCKWORTH: It doesn’t feel good.
DUBNER: The other part is that it becomes costly to lie, in that you have to keep track of your lies, or otherwise you’ll be caught, and then the cover-up is worse than the crime. This gets me back to the question of why we lie. So, I read a really interesting piece of research. It was from almost 20 years ago, by a psychologist at UMass-Amherst named Robert Feldman that was looking at lying among undergrads. He had 120-some pairs of undergraduate students, and he told them the study was about how people interact when they meet someone new. And these participants would have a 10-minute recorded conversation with a hidden camera. And in one condition, the students were told to try to make themselves seem likable. Another, they were told to try to seem competent. And a third was a control group; they didn’t get any direction like this. Afterward, he told the participants that they had been videotaped. Then he got consent from them. And then he had them watch the videos after and identify where they had told an untruth. And the results, I’m reading here, “60 percent of the people in that 10-minute conversation lied at least once and told an average of two to three lies.” But here’s what I’m getting to — this is a side result that I find really interesting — women were more likely to lie to make the person they were talking to feel good, while men lied most often to make themselves look better.
DUCKWORTH: That resonates so deeply, by the way. I wondered whether, in addition to lying to make the other person feel better, there was going to be a gender difference on claiming, or owning up, to lies. Because, by the way, what one person defines as a lie and what another person defines as a lie could be very different things.
DUBNER: Ah. Good point. Let me ask you this: you know a little something about children and their brains. At what age does lying start?
DUCKWORTH: I know from Jerry Kagan’s research that these moral emotions — like, to even feel a sense of what it means to do the right thing, and to also feel guilt and shame when you tell a lie or when you tell a lie, or when do a wrong thing in any other way, like hurt somebody — I think he would argue that that starts around the age of two or three. And so, I’m assuming that, if you need some self-awareness about a lie to be a lie, then it would be around then. But, as we all know, young children do say things that are untrue, and I don’t even think they know that it’s bad when they’re really little.
DUBNER: Wait, I’m a little confused. Is there a period where a child is capable of talking and doesn’t lie? Or does the lying start as soon as they can talk?
DUCKWORTH: Well, let’s talk about, like, a very young toddler. If they are saying something that’s not true, but they don’t have, like, a metacognitive sense that, like, “Ha-ha-ha, I’m telling this untruth, because I want to get something,” I think Jerry Kagan might have argued that, to tell a lie, you have to know, at some level, that you’re telling a lie. And I think very young children would not have that capacity.
DUBNER: Does it diminish over time as we get older? Because I’ll be honest, I feel that I get more honest the older I get. Or maybe it’s just “cranky” is the better word. And I don’t like to mince words.
DUCKWORTH: So, our prefrontal cortex — the stuff behind the forehead, the stuff that is the reason why human beings have foreheads. You know, like —.
DUBNER: That’s the reason I have a forehead?
DUCKWORTH: Pretty much. I mean, if you look at other primates, of course they have foreheads, but they’re not as big as the human forehead, and that accommodates the prefrontal cortex. And the prefrontal cortex is the seat of executive function in the brain. And executive function is many things, but one of them is to inhibit impulses. And so, there’s an impulse to lie, and then there’s the inhibition of the impulse to lie. And prefrontal function does follow a sort of inverse “U,” where it’s terrible when you’re really, really little, and then it gets better. There’s a little blip in adolescence, by the way, but that’s a slightly more complicated story. But then, your 70s and 80s, for sure, prefrontal function is declining over those later years. And just the other day, Stephen, Jason and I are at the top of a church steeple — we’re on vacation.
DUBNER: Wait, you’re at the top of a church steeple?
DUCKWORTH: Well, yeah, it was one of those scenic lookouts that you could pay five bucks and, like, climb the church stairs — 96 stairs. And at the very top, there’s a 90-year-old.
DUBNER: 90? Nine-zero?
DUCKWORTH: 90. Nine-zero.
DUBNER: Wow. Did they get her up there with a crane?
DUCKWORTH: She goes up and down these really steep, ladder-like stairs every day.
DUBNER: Ooh. Cause or effect?
DUCKWORTH: I will say this: probably selection bias. It’s certainly not the reason why she’s 90, but, for sure, she’s doing well. And, you know, if anybody’s got a good prefrontal cortex, it’s got to be this 90-year-old, at least compared to other 90-year-olds. However, she’s 90. So, we’re leaving, and we’re there with our 18-year-old, Lucy. So, we thank her. We’ve had a lovely conversation. She’s made all these jokes about how, you know, as long as she doesn’t do the knitting while she’s walking down the steps she’s fine. And she said, “Oh, are you guys together?” And she points to Lucy and my husband, and says, like, “Are you married?” And we laugh, and we think, “Wow, maybe she doesn’t really have it together.” We, you know, explain that I’m married to Jason and not our daughter, Lucy. And then she just looks at me, and said, “Well, you’re really robbing the cradle.” And the idea was, basically, that I look really old relative to my beautiful, handsome husband. And when we get to the bottom of the stairs, I was like, “Ugh, 90-year-olds, they have no ability to inhibit themselves. She has lost the capacity to tell a white lie.” That was a thought that was probably to protect my ego. The other thought I had is, “Do I really look that old?”
DUBNER: Now, if we could take a chainsaw and cut off one leg of you and Jason, how many rings would we see on each of you? In other words, is he younger than you?
DUCKWORTH: That’s a lovely image. Thank you.
DUBNER: Yeah. Sorry, that’s not the easiest way to tell age, I guess.
DUCKWORTH: But next time I want to know somebody’s age, I’m just going to say, “If I could take a chainsaw and chop off one of your legs —.”
DUBNER: If that seems too violent, you could use a, a handsaw of some kind. But is Jason significantly younger than you, however?
DUCKWORTH: He’s two years younger than me! He’s 49, and I’m 51. And I don’t know, maybe I was having a bad day. But I really couldn’t believe it. This woman thought that I looked old enough to be my husband’s mother. And she felt no desire to lie.
DUBNER: Okay. Question, how did that incident change your view of 90-year-old women, generally?
DUCKWORTH: I hate them.
DUBNER: Yeah, that sounds about right.
DUCKWORTH: Damn you all! No, I thought it was actually kind of charming. And, honestly, if it’s true at all that the older you get, the less you lie — whether it’s because your prefrontal cortex isn’t what it used to be, or you have, like, learned that honesty is the best policy, I kind of like it, honestly.
DUBNER: Well, I’m not going to lie, I enjoyed this conversation, every word of it.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. How do you like this dress?
No Stupid Questions is produced by me, Rebecca Lee Douglas. And now, here’s a fact-check of today’s conversation.
Stephen and Angela discuss the work of Israeli-American psychologist and Duke University professor Dan Ariely. After this recording, the blog Data Colada published research revealing that a 2012 Ariely field study about dishonesty was based on fabricated data. Ariely denies making up the figures, and it is possible that the fabricated data came from the company where the study took place. So, while nobody disagrees that there is a smoking gun here, it’s not clear who pulled the trigger.
Later, Angela said that she doesn’t know whether polygraph tests are an effective tool to detect lies. Research has confirmed that polygraphs can detect physiological reactions associated with stress, anger, excitement, and anxiety. These reactions include elevation of pulse, respiration, blood pressure, and electrodermal activity due to sweat. But according to the National Academy of Sciences, “the absolute magnitude of an individual’s physiological response to a relevant question cannot be a valid indicator of the truthfulness of a response.”
That’s it for the fact-check.
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No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and Freakonomics, M.D. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was mixed by Eleanor Osborne with help from Jeremy Johnston. We had additional help this week from Anya Dubner. Our staff also includes Neal Carruth, Gabriel Roth, Greg Rippin, Julie Kanfer, Morgan Levey, Zack Lapinski, Ryan Kelley, Katherine Moncure, Jasmin Klinger, Daria Klenert, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowditch, and Alina Kulman. Our theme song is “And She Was” by Talking Heads — special thanks to David Byrne and Warner Chappell Music. If you’d like to listen to the show ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. You can follow us on Twitter @NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to email@example.com. To learn more, or to read episode transcripts, visit Freakonomics.com/NSQ. Thanks for listening!
DUCKWORTH: Can you remember the last time you lied?
DUBNER: Well, remember at the beginning of this conversation? I said it was so great to speak with you.
DUCKWORTH: Total, flat-out untruth.
- Dan Ariely, professor of psychology at Duke University.
- Robert Feldman, professor of psychological and brain sciences at University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
- Jerome Kagan, professor of psychology at Harvard University.
- Barry Schwartz, visiting professor of management at University of California, Berkeley.
- “Fraudulent Data Raise Questions About Superstar Honesty Researcher,” by Cathleen O’Grady (Science, 2021).
- “The Valjean Effect: Visceral States and Cheating,” by Elanor F. Williams, David Pizarro, Dan Ariely, James D. Weinberg (Emotion, 2016).
- “64% of Americans Today Think It Is Sometimes Justified to Lie, Compared to 42% in 2006,” by Chris Jackson (Ipsos, 2016).
- The Human Spark: The Science of Human Development, by Jerome Kagan (2013).
- Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing, by Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe (2011).
- “Self-Presentation and Verbal Deception: Do Self-Presenters Lie More?” by Robert S. Feldman, James A. Forrest, and Benjamin R. Happ (Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 2002).