Scientists: We all need fact-checking

Seth Borenstein
Associated Press

Washington — This is the season of lies. We watch with fascination as candidates for the world’s most powerful job trade falsehoods and allegations of dishonesty.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump routinely calls rival Ted Cruz “Lyin’ Ted.” Cruz retorts: “Falsely accusing someone of lying is itself a lie and something Donald does daily.”

News organizations such as The Associated Press and PolitiFact dedicate enormous resources to separating candidates’ truthful wheat from dishonest chaff.

But if we’ve come to expect office-seekers who seem truth-averse, many of us have given little thought to our own fibs, and how they compare with politicians’ deceits.

For more than two decades, researchers of different stripes have examined humanity’s less-than-truthful underbelly, and this is what they have found: We all stretch the truth. We learned to deceive as toddlers. We rationalize our fabrications that benefit us. We tell little white lies daily that make others feel good.

Children learn to lie at an average of about 3 years old, often when they realize that other people don’t know what they are thinking, said Kang Lee, a professor at the University of Toronto.

He has done extensive research on children and lying. Lee set up an experiment in a video monitored room to see if he could catch children lying about peaking at a toy when an adult left the room.

At age 2, only 30 percent lie, Lee said. At age 3, half do. By 5 or 6, 90 percent of the kids lie. This is universal, Lee said.

In 1996, DePaulo, author of “The Hows and Whys of Lies,” put recorders on students for a week and found they lied, on average, in every third conversation of 10 minutes or more. For adults, it was once every five conversations.

“I would say we’re lying constantly. Constantly,” said Maurice Schweitzer, who studies deception and decision-making at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, Trump’s alma mater.

Society rewards people for white lies, said Robert Feldman at the University of Massachusetts. “We don’t like people who tell us the truth all the time. ... The lies that we accept from politicians right now are lies that are seen as acceptable because it’s what we want to hear.”

“Dishonesty is contagious,” said University of Nottingham’s Simon Gaechter.

His March 2016 study examined honesty in a dice game in 23 countries (but not the United States) and compared them to a corruption index for those countries. The more corrupt a society was, the more likely the people there were willing to deceive.

Most people want to be honest, but if they live in a country where rule violations are rampant “people say, ‘well everybody cheats. If I cheat here, then that’s OK,’ ” Gaechter said.