Experiments Show How Readily Adults and Children Will Lie When Given the Chance To Do So

Experimental research—secretly putting people in a controlled setting—also show how readily people will lie.

For example, during a bogus experiment on ESP (a mind-reading task), people are presented with an opportunity to cheat in order to win a $50 prize. When people are placed in such a situation, almost everyone cheats (90%) and then when confronted about their behavior, few tell the truth; only 9 to 20% of the individuals in these studies confess when questioned (see Miller & Stiff; DeTurck & Miller).

What is really interesting about these findings is that the same results are obtained by different researchers working in different parts of the country.

But if you assume that situations sometimes influence behavior, then such findings make a lot more sense—"behavior happens in context." Our actions don’t necessarily match our beliefs or values—situations can get the best of us (see behaving in context).

Along the same line, research on deception and young children shows a similar pattern of results. When placed in a situation where lying is in a child’s self-interest (to avoid punishment), children as young as age two-and-a-half will lie to get out of trouble (see Lewis).

It is interesting to note that by the time children get to be five years old—they are much more likely to lie. Every five-year-old in these studies lied when getting caught doing something wrong.

And although it will be covered in greater detail in another section of this website, this research also reveals that it is impossible for observers (including the children’s parents) to tell whether these 3- to 5-year-olds are lying (see lying comes easy).

Overall, the experimental evidence shows that when placed in the right (or wrong) situation, people are prone to lying, a behavior that starts at an early age, and people are very good at it.