National Post

Wednesday, June 12, 2002

Study: Women lie for others, men lie for themselves

Or are they just polite?

Sarah Schmidt
National Post

(Bonnie) Leadbeater
A majority of women lie in everyday conversation to make the other person feel good, while men fib to make themselves look better, new research suggests.

Robert Feldman, a social psychologist at the University of Massachusetts, found 60% of strangers lied at least once during a 10-minute get-to-know-you conversation. The average number of lies was 2.9, though it ranged from one to 12.

"The thing that was very surprising to me was how easily people lied and how readily they lied," Dr. Feldman said.

The study also found men and women told an equal number of lies, though they differed in intent. "Women generally tried to smooth out social situations. They try to make everyone feel good in any situation. Men tend to be more competitive. One way to be more competitive is to build yourself up."

A group of 121 pairs of university undergraduates engaged in 10-minute conversations. They were told the purpose of the study was to see how people act when they meet someone new.

The exchanges were videotaped. The participants later viewed the exchanges and identified their inaccuracies or embellishments.

"When they viewed the tape, most were quite surprised at the lying. Many were unaware. And it was very hard to tell. It would just come out of left field," said Dr. Feldman, whose research appears in the current issue of the Journal of Basic and Applied Social Psychology.

Men tended to engage in self-promotion, particularly when they had female partners, the research shows.

Dr. Feldman remembers a young man bragging that his rock band had just landed a recording contract.

"There was no contract, there was no rock band and he barely played the guitar."

Conversely, women tended to agree with statements even if they disagreed or did not have enough facts to form an opinion.

"They'd say, 'I really liked that movie too,' even if they hadn't seen it.

"Or, 'It was one of the best classes I've had,' even when they didn't know the professor, just to make the social situation flow a little more smoothly," Dr. Feldman said.

While parents emphasize truthfulness when they raise children, North Americans also value politeness and social niceties, Dr. Feldman said.

"Parents say, 'Your grandparents are coming over with a gift. No matter what you think about the gift, please say that you like the gift.'

"With that kind of double message, it's really easy for us to cross the line."

Bonnie Leadbeater, a psychologist at the University of Victoria, has studied children and lying.

She suggested Dr. Feldman's results say more about our penchant for politeness than a cultural attachment to deception.

"His definition of lying is a pretty wide base," she said.

"We generally think of lying as a moral issue. Some of this doesn't have this quality. It doesn't have the intent-to-deceive quality. Is there real harm intended? There's no cut there between what's moral and what's not."

Dr. Leadbeater said if a person agrees with a stranger's benign statement during an initial conversation, "we wouldn't call those things attempts to deceive, we would call them polite conversation. It misses this intent to deceive.

"We would be pretty bizarre people if we were 100% honest about what we were thinking. If I'm too busy to talk to you right now, am I going to tell you that?"

Dr. Feldman is currently studying how often people lie in job interviews.

His previous research showed that the most popular students in schools were often the best liars.

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