“Everybody lies” was the mantra of Gregory House, the curmudgeonly physician so memorably portrayed by Hugh Laurie. But being a man of science, the brilliant doctor might want to rethink that philosophy in light of new research from Canada.
In an experiment where lying led directly to financial gain, just over 50 percent of the participants told an untruth. That figure is roughly consistent with previous research.
What’s new in this study by University of Regina economist Jason Childs is its breakdown of the personality traits of the liars. Unlike some previous research, he did not find men are more likely to lie than women.
However, he discovered other factors predicted a greater likelihood of telling an untruth—including the assertion that religion plays an important role in your life.
Somewhere (or not), Christopher Hitchens is chuckling.
Childs’ experiment featured 400 students drawn from introductory economics classes at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan. After providing basic biographical information, they were paired off and assigned to play the role of either “sender” or “receiver.”
Senders were informed that the pair would receive a total of two payments: $5 and $15 in some cases, $5 and $7 in others. They would receive one of the amounts, while the receiver collected the other.
They were then told to send a message to the receiver, who sat in a nearby room, informing him or her of which payoff was greater. The receiver would presumably then choose to take the more lucrative one, leaving the sender stuck with the lower amount.
Unless, of course, he or she chose to fib.
So who lied for personal financial gain? “We find that sex, age, grade point average, student debt, size of return, socioeconomic status, and average time spent in religious observation are not related to the decision to lie,” Childs writes in the journal Economics Letters.
Among those more likely to lie for financial gain were:
• Business majors. “It could be that these students are more prone to lying by nature or training,” Childs writes. “It could also be that individuals strongly motivated by financial returns, and therefore more likely to lie for a monetary payoff, are more likely to pursue an education in business.” (Previous research has found higher levels of academic cheating among business majors.)
• Students whose parents were divorced. This is in line with expectations, in that past research has found children of divorce are more likely to engage in anti-social behavior. Perhaps the belief they’ve been cheated out of a happy childhood may lead them to feel cheating is OK.
• Those for whom religion was more important to their lives. “This is surprising,” Childs writes, as most religions “promote honesty as a virtue. It may be that students for whom religion was important feel separate from other students at this largely secular university,” and thus feel less compelled to be honest with them.
So, Dr. House’s cynicism aside, there are more than a few honest men—and women—out there. But if a friend with a business degree mentions he turned to religion to heal the wounds of his parents’ divorce … well, you may not want to make him your financial advisor.