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Frequent Liars Club

New research finds Brits fib a bit more than Americans, but that a small subset of the population tells most of the untruths in both countries.
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(Photo: nevenm/Shutterstock)

(Photo: nevenm/Shutterstock)

The cynical mantra of Dr. Gregory House was “everybody lies.” New data from actor Hugh Laurie’s native Great Britain suggests while that may be literally accurate, it misses a larger truth: About 10 percent of the population lies a lot.

A study based on self-reports finds that, among U.K. residents, the majority of the mendacity is carried out by “a small proportion of high-frequency liars,” writes researchers Kim Serota of Oakland University and Timothy Levine of Korea University.

This aligns well with a 2010 study Serota conducted on the prevalence of lying in America. “On any given day,” he concludes in that paper, “the majority of lies are told by a small portion of the population, and nearly 6 out of 10 Americans claim to have told no lies at all.”

"Prolific liars are four times more likely to report losing a partner because of their lying habits."

Shortly after that research was published, the Science Museum of London released a study of 2,980 U.K. residents, which addressed the same issue. Serota and Levine’s new paper, published in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology, is an analysis of those findings.

It concludes that “prolific liars” form a specific subset of the population—about 9.7 percent in the U.K. By their own estimation, which the researchers believe is largely accurate, they tell an average of nearly three “big lies” (as opposed to harmless “little white lies”) per day. In contrast, the population as a whole admits to telling one big lie per week.

“Their dishonesty permeates from business situations to personal relationships,” Serota and Levine write. “At work, they are ... almost nine times more likely to have been fired for their dishonest behavior. Prolific liars are also four times more likely to report losing a partner because of their lying habits.”

So who are these people who lie practically every time they open their mouths? In the U.K. study, “they are younger, more likely to be male, and have higher occupational status,” they write.

In terms of geography, Northern Ireland had a disproportionate number of them, while the number from England (especially outside London) was below the national average.

How do those figures compare to the U.S.? Serota and Levine report the number of lies told on an average day is a bit higher in Britain, with the typical Brit telling about two per day, compared to 1.6 for the average American.

The results suggest that, “normatively, lying is more prevalent in the United Kingdom than the United States,” they write. But they quickly add that the majority of these untruths are harmless, or close to it.

“These results put everyday lying into perspective,” Serota and Levine conclude. “It is normal for people to tell a few lies, and many lies are minor transgressions, or simply efforts to avoid being hurtful.”

“These data provide a strong case that the people who tell a lot of lies daily are not only different; they are a population that needs to be studied independently.” Perhaps we can call them the frequent liars club.