Case Studies

Lying

People tell lies for many different reasons, but what predicts when someone will tell a lie? Does social network have an influence on lying tendencies?

Hypothesis: We predicted that an individual’s lying tendencies would be predicted by the lying tendencies of their friends, partners, and family members. Furthermore, we predicted that lying tendencies within a social network form from social transmission.

Experiment: We worked with a Massively Open Online Course to recruit subjects. As part of the course, students had to both take our survey and send it to another person of their choosing (not in the course). This resulted in a sample of connected pairs of individuals who completed the survey independently. Participants answered several questions including 16 questions regarding how likely they were to lie in hypothetical scenarios and 2 questions on their relationship with the other person who completed the survey: how much time they spent together and how close they felt to the other person.

Results: We found that lying tendencies were related across socially connected pairs. Across all participants, we observed bi-directional predictive relationships. Furthermore, for certain types of lies (antisocial commissions) it was found that the more time individuals spent together the more strongly their lying tendencies were related. While correlational studies of this nature cannot prove causation, it suggests that such lies may be spread through social transmission.

Application: The question of how dishonesty spreads through social networks is relevant to relationships, organizations, and society at large. If our culture values honesty, we may need to better understand how our own engagement in dishonesty can influence those around us. Further experiments are needed to better understand the mechanisms behind how and why lying spreads through social networks, but this provides preliminary evidence to suggest that it does.