For many of us, there’s telling a lie – and then there’s telling a white lie. These kinder, gentler fibs tend to be about less important issues, and they’re often delivered to avoid hurting a person’s feelings. (“Really! You look great in that outfit!”) But there’s a fine line between a little white lie and big fat whopper – and we wanted to get some honest opinions on the subject.
We asked 2,000 people to ’fess up about the white lies in their lives. Which lies are most severe? Which fibs do people tell most often – and which do they hear most? Who do they lie to, and how often do they lie? And how do factors such as home state and relationship status play in? Read on for the honest (we hope!) answers from our survey.
A telling trend emerged when we asked people to rank the severity of lies on a scale of one to five: The top four falsehoods relate to sex, including the most serious by far: “I’m on birth control,” which respondents ranked 4.5 out of five. Though the next three most severe bluffs aren’t likely to result in unwanted pregnancies, their subject matter is similar: “I’m not just looking for sex,” “I’ve slept with (X) people,” and “You’re the first person I’ve ever done this with.” Though their purposes may be debatable, our survey participants didn’t find these falsehoods particularly trivial.
On the other end of the spectrum, the five least serious lies feature two key traits: They spare their recipient’s feelings, and for the most part, they cause no harm. The mildest falsehood, “Your baby is cute” ranks around 1.7 out of five on our seriousness scale – and it’s sure to delight a proud parent. Similarly, if you forget someone’s name, feign adoration for an unwanted gift, compliment a meal you dislike, or develop a “headache” during an – ahem – inopportune time, our survey respondents will forgive you.
How do people’s opinions about the severity of certain lies differ across the country? Rhode Island residents are the least disturbed by lies, ranking our list of falsehoods an average of 2.0. People in Delaware, Tennessee, Hawaii, and Mississippi feel similarly unperturbed about tall tales.
On the other hand, residents of South Dakota and New Mexico tie for the top spot when it comes to classifying lies as serious. They ranked our lies an average of 2.74 on the severity scale. People in New Hampshire and Louisiana came next, followed by Vermont.
We also asked respondents to consider whether the untruths on our list were technically white lies or real ones. Much of the list is similar to their rankings of each lie’s severity level. For instance, sex-related lies claim the top four spots: More than 92% of people consider “I’m on birth control” a real lie rather than a white one. Same story on the other end of the spectrum: As in the lie severity rating, the majority deem the fibs delivered to protect people’s feelings white lies. For instance, only around 11% of people thought “I love this present!” was a real lie.
However, a few key differences exist between both rankings. Although “Miss you, too” ranked No. 7 out of 20 on our severity scale, around 70% of people said it’s just a white lie. Same with the fib “I’m fine”: It was the eighth-most serious lie, but around 73% of people asserted that it’s only a white lie. It appears that as many people prefer to reserve the “real lie” title for fibs with physical implications (such as sex, smoking, and hand-washing habits) rather than emotional ones.
What do you lie about? Our respondents came clean about their fibs – and it paints an interesting picture. Uttered by 92% of us at some point, the top lie people tell is “I’m fine.” Presumably, this is a lie people tell to spare others from any number of less pleasant truths. The second-most common lie, told by 80% of people, is designed to protect a gift-giver’s feelings: “I love this present!”
Interestingly, the third-, fourth-, and fifth-place lies illuminate some uncomfortable truths about navigating the murky waters of friendship. Rather than cancelling plans or being forthright with their feelings, the majority of people we asked have opted to tell white lies, including “Sorry, I’m sick,” “I didn’t see your text,” and “Let’s keep in touch.”
Next, we turned the tables and asked people to tell us which lies they hear from the people around them. The top answer matches the No. 1 lie people report telling, too: “I’m fine.” A whopping 93% of people report having heard this less-than-truthful platitude. (There’s something to think about the next time you say, “I’m fine” when you’re not: People know you’re lying.)
The next three frequently heard lies revolve around plans gone awry: “Leaving in five minutes,” “I’ll be ready in 15 minutes,” and “On my way.” Nearly nine out of 10 people report having heard these fibs – and presumably spend more time than they’d like waiting for others to arrive. In-person meetups aside, today’s connected world means people are lying about virtual communication, too: Around eight out of 10 people have heard “I didn’t see your text,” “My phone died,” and “I started to respond but totally forgot!”
So when people lie, who tends to be on the receiving end? More than a quarter of our respondents report lying to their co-workers. For most of us, work is the place to put our best foot forward. So whether they involve politely fibbing about a colleague’s “great” idea or feigning surprise at an error, the majority of workplace falsehoods are likely told by someone hoping to appear helpful, professional, and competent.
Around 24% of people report lying to family, while 22% fib to their friends. For most respondents, the closest bonds yielded the fewest lies: Less than 11% of people lie to their significant other, and less than 9% lie to their parents. It’s safe to say that many white lies serve a dual purpose: protecting the recipient’s feelings, which in turn protects the teller from the recipient’s anger or disappointment. Perhaps the desire to fib about not liking a partner’s cooking or a parent’s present recedes with the knowledge that their love is (let’s hope) unconditional.
How often do people lie in a given day? Whether they live alone, live with a significant other, or are in a domestic partnership or civil union, single people claim the top three spots for frequency, admitting they average 1.3 lies per day. Married people come next, averaging 1.25 lies per day, while separated and divorced people get closer to a single fib per day. People who are widowed are the only ones who average fewer than one lie per day.
But are our respondents being honest? One study revealed that during everyday conversation, people tell white lies, on average, two to three times every 10 minutes. That’s certainly a whole lot more than once per day.
Here’s an ironic truth: People often lie on surveys. They tend to overestimate the good stuff (how often they vote, attend church, or donate money to charity) and underestimate the less desirable habits (how often they take drugs or drive while under the influence). Haven’t you ever fibbed when the dentist asked how often you floss or fudged when the doctor asked how often you exercise?
Amazingly, in our survey, more than 96% of respondents answered truthfully, while fewer than 4% of people gave dishonest answers. Do those numbers sound too good to be true? Keep in mind our respondents may have lied. We really can’t be sure.
CAN YOU HANDLE THE TRUTH?
Our survey offers a unique glimpse at a subject that’s not often openly (and honestly) discussed. The lies people find most offensive are the ones with the potential to harm, while the fibs most easily forgiven are less serious ones that aim to spare people’s feelings. A major takeaway: Sex is a situation fraught with serious lies.
If you live in South Dakota or New Mexico, lie at your own risk – because people there take it seriously. If you live in Rhode Island or Delaware, you can fib more freely knowing people find lies less severe. The top lie in our survey – both told and heard – is “I’m fine,” we lie to our coworkers more often than anyone else, and single people are the most likely to stretch the truth.
If you want to dive deeper into the world of lies, don’t miss “The Program”: an eye-opening look at the serious deceptions leading to cyclist Lance Armstrong’s downfall. Starring Ben Foster as the cancer survivor/Tour de France champ, the film is a powerful commentary on the ramifications of lies, deceptions, and half-truths. Now available exclusively on DIRECTV CINEMA® before it hits theatres.
We surveyed 2,000 people across the United States about their feelings and experiences with white lies. Seriousness, or severity, is measured on a scale of one to five with one being not at all and five being extremely.
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