How Widespread Is Lying in America?

Used car salesmen and politicians may get a bad rap, but the rest of us may be just as bad when it comes to lying.

In recent weeks several people in the public eye have been forced to admit making up facts about their past.

The Boston Globe reported last month that Pulitzer Prize-winning Mount Holyoke College professor Joseph Ellis had lied to his students about being a Vietnam combat veteran.

Days later, the Globe also found that the city's transit authority chief, Robert Prince Jr., had fabricated a story about witnessing a lynching in Alabama three decades ago. Prince, the first black head of the transit organization, made the statements three years ago, when the MBTA faced hundreds of discrimination and retaliation claims filed by employees.

Reactions Range From Outrage to Pity

Some see such deceptive behaviors more to be pitied than condemned.

"In general people who make those types of statements are probably more to be the object of pity than the object of scorn or anger," says Charles Ford, a psychology professor at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, who has written about lying.

Generally, people who exaggerate their accomplishments or experiences are really trying to bolster their own self-esteem, more than take advantage of others, he suggests.

"They aren't doing it for some specific gain," Ford says.

He notes that in many cases where people in the public eye have been caught lying about their past, there was little real reason to do so.

"The obvious contradiction is that these people are already impressive," he says.

Creating ‘Personal Myths’

In any case, few of us should rush to condemn such people, many experts say, because most of us engage in similar behavior at times.

"Each of us creates our own personal myth — our own story about ourselves," Ford says. That story often involves exaggerating or omitting certain details.

Bella DePaulo, a social psychologist who studies deception at the University of Virginia, says some lying is necessary in everyday life.

"It would be a disaster if everybody were totally honest," she says, describing a college student who tried to avoid any lies for several weeks. The student, DePaulo said, was unable to complete his experiment, and was forced to apologize to scores of people afterward.

Others caution against excusing deceptive behavior, however.

"It's certainly true that everybody has told a lie in their lives," says Paul Hurley, an ethicist and philosopher at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. But, he says, that doesn't mean some lies aren't "particularly heinous."

Hurley includes lies about past achievements told by professors or other authority figures in that category.

"With scholarship and teaching, there is such an overwhelmingly important implication of honesty," he says. "There's just no room for this."

Lies Can Be Hard to Spot

If people do often lie about elements of their past, there may be little risk involved.

"People are very poor at spotting liars," says Stan Walters, a deception expert who teaches law enforcement officers to better detect lies.

"We ignore the symptoms of deceitfulness," he said.

The only difference between public figures and the general public may be the extra scrutiny of what they say. The temptation to invent facts about ourselves may say more about human nature than about the particular characters of people in the media spotlight.

"Lies are like wishes," says DePaulo.

"Behind almost every lie there is a wish that the lie was true."