Case Study

Beware of Spending Time with Liars


What predicts when someone will tell a lie? Does one’s personal network (friends and family) have an influence on lying tendencies?


We predicted that an individual’s lying tendencies would be predicted by one’s peers. If a person’s friends, partners, and family members were more likely to lie, then so too would be the individual.

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 pairs who completed the survey independently. Participants answered a 16 questions regarding how likely an individual was to lie in hypothetical scenarios and two 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).


Lying tendencies were related across socially connected pairs. Across all participants, we observed bi-directional predictive relationships. Furthermore, for certain types of lies, 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 (transfer of information or behaviors throughout a group).

Why it matters

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. This research provides preliminary evidence to suggest that lying spreads through social networks. Further experiments are needed to better understand the underlying mechanisms.