Of Love And Lies

Ever wonder if an amour is fudging the facts? Here, we reveal the truth about dating and deception—and some surefire ways to spot a fibber.

By Bella DePaulo, Ph.D.

kid you not: I’ve been studying the lies that people tell each other for more than two decades. If that sounds like a strange field of research, think about it this way—people lie, a lot, and those who happen to become the victim of such deception usually want to know about it. In no field is this more true that in love and relationships. Given that’s the case, I thought I’d reveal what some of the research has taught me about what people lie about,
Surprisingly, strangers can tell if your romantic partner is lying better than you can.
why, and how to tell if someone’s fibbing. Prepare for a very eye-opening look at the truth about deception in the dating world!

True lie #1: The most serious lies are told by (and to) the people we care about most
When we looked at the people who were involved in the most serious lies in people’s lives, either as the liars or as the targets of the lies, we found something important: The people we care about the most — such as close friends, romantic partners, spouses, and parents — were most likely to be involved in those events.

True lie #2: When it comes to little lies, though, our romantic partners see more of our true selves
Fellow researcher Debby Kashy and I asked 147 people to keep diaries, every day for a week, of all the lies they told and all the people they lied to. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of the lies were little lies. For example, people lied to make themselves look better than they really were, to avoid embarrassment or disagreements, or to get out of doing some small task that they did not feel like doing. In general, though, people told fewer of these little lies to the people they cared about the most. That usually meant romantic partners, but also included close friends and family members.

True lie #3: The more attractive you are, the more people will lie to you
Social psychologists Wade Rowatt, Michael Cunningham, and Perri Druen showed people photos of possible dates who were either considered to be very attractive or rather unattractive. Along with each picture was info about the person’s beliefs and preferences. When subjects were asked who they thought they’d get along with on a date, subjects lied most about their own beliefs and characteristics when faced with the prospect of an attractive date—if the hottie in photo #1 loved skiing, for example, subjects were prone to say, “I love skiing, too!” even if they’d barely hit the bunny slopes.

True lie #4: Romantic partners are worse than strangers at detecting each other’s fibs
Imagine that your partner is gazing at someone behind you, someone you can’t see, and
Confessing to a big fib like an affair won’t necessarily absolve you.
you ask your partner, “Do you think that person you’re looking at is attractive?” Eric Anderson created a situation just like that for his dissertation. Sometimes the partners who were asked that question lied, and sometimes they told the truth. Turns out, people could distinguish their romantic partner’s lies from their truths only 52 percent of the time (when they would have gotten 50 percent right just by chance). Not a very impressive level of accuracy. Complete strangers, on the other hand, had a 58 percent accuracy rate in detecting that person’s fibs.

True lie #5: When asked to ’fess up to their most serious lie, affairs are by far the most common
No big surprise there! Although, let’s not discount the other doozies. Many of the lies were told to hide bad behaviors, such as squandering in the stock market the money that was supposed to go toward a down payment on a couple’s first home. Some people hide facts about their past that they find shameful, or they conceal information (such as a grim health diagnosis) that would be upsetting for the other person to hear. Some claim accomplishments (such as athletic prowess) or connections (with important people) that are purely fanciful. But by far the most common cover-up involved sleeping around behind someone’s back.

True lie #6: If you admit to a lie, it might not save a relationship
Ever heard someone say “If only he/she had told me the truth, I could have forgiven him/her”? Not so. When communication professors Steven McCornack and Timothy Levine asked 190 people to describe instances in which a partner had lied to them, they found that whether the relationship survived depended more on what was lied about than the fact that the person had lied, period. For example, the fact that a romantic partner had an affair was more likely to doom a relationship than the fact that the partner lied about the affair. So in other words, confessing to a big fib like an affair won’t necessarily absolve you.

True lie #7: Think liars don’t care about other people? Often, just the opposite is the case
One of our stereotypes about liars is that they’re cold, scheming, manipulative, and don’t really care about people. Some liars really are that way. But far more people lie because they do care. Liars are frequently tempted to fib when they think that another person would not like them just the way they are. So they lie and pretend to be different so the other person will like, respect, or care about them more.

True lie #8: “I did it for you” —that’s what people claim when they tell lies to their romantic partners
In a study of lying between exes, social psychologists Mary Kaplar and Anne Gordon asked people to describe a time when they lied to their romantic partner, and a time when their romantic partner lied to them. Liars said they had their partner’s best interests in mind when they lied. For example, they said they were trying to avoid upsetting their partner or hurting their partner’s feelings. The partners who were the targets of lies, however, didn’t feel the same way.

True lie #9: Even after lying to their romantic partners, liars claim that they are not bad people
Kaplar and Gordon found that people who lie to their romantic partners do typically feel guilty about their lies. But they do not think that they are bad or even dishonest people. Instead, they think of themselves as basically honest people who got caught in a bad situation.

Bella DePaulo is a social psychologist, visiting professor at UC Santa Barbara and the author of Singled Out: How Singles are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, And Ignored and Still Live Happily Ever After.
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