Lying is an important social and moral category. We react negatively to liars and their lies. But what is it to lie? The standard view in philosophy and social science is that a lie is a dishonest assertion. This view goes all the way back to at least the 4th century, when Augustine wrote, “He may say a true thing and yet lie, if he thinks it to be false and utters it for true.” On this view, lying is a purely psychological act: it does not require your assertion to be objectively false, only that you believe it is false.
About two years ago, my son Angelo came across an expression of the standard view of lying. He wondered whether it fit the ordinary concept of lying. (You might be able to imagine the sort of dinnertime conversations that could lead a twelve-year-old to become curious on this point.) In particular, Angelo was interested in whether, on the ordinary view, lying was a purely psychological act. So we conducted some behavioral experiments to find out.
Here is a pair of examples we used to test people’s judgments. In each version of the story, a man makes an assertion with the intention of deceiving his audience. The two stories differed in one critical respect: the man says something false in the False version, whereas he ends up saying something true in the True version.
[False/True] Jacob's friend Mary recently posted information on the internet that will alert the public to serious government corruption. Soon some federal agents visit Jacob and ask where Mary is, in order to detain her. Jacob thinks that Mary is at [the grocery store/her brother’s house], so he tells the agents, “She is at [her brother’s house/the grocery store].” In fact, Mary is at the grocery store.
Interestingly, we found evidence that the response options offered to people had a dramatic effect on how they described the case. For example, if you force people to choose between saying that the man “lied” or “didn’t lie,” then they will say the man lied, even when he says something true. However, Angelo and I wondered whether this was an artifact of the mode of questioning and, thus, should not be taken at face value, in either of two ways. On the one hand, we wondered whether it was because people simply answered in accordance with how things seem to the speaker himself (perspective-taking). On the other hand, we wondered whether people thought that answering “didn’t lie" could misleadingly suggest that the man was not trying to lie, or that he did not deserve blame for his dishonest intentions (pragmatic implication).
Accordingly, we conducted two follow-up experiments that gave people more flexible response options. These options disentangled the agent’s perspective and intentions, on the one hand, and the attribution of lying, on the other. If people continued to classify the man as a liar in the True condition, then it would show that the standard philosophical view nicely captures the ordinary concept of lying on this point. By contrast, if people no longer classified the man as a liar in the True condition, then it would show that the standard philosophical view and the ordinary concept differ fundamentally on this point.
As it turns out, when given more flexible options, people no longer classified the man as a liar in the True condition. Instead, they judged that he tried to lie but failed to do so. Alternatively, they judged that he only thinks he lied. Here is a particularly striking figure from our final study, in which people selected between "He tried to lie and actually did lie” and "He tried to lie but only thinks he lied.” The bars represent the percent of people in the two conditions who said that the man did lie.
Overall, we concluded that, on the ordinary concept, lying is not a purely psychological act. As an added bonus, in the process, Angelo might have become the youngest first-author ever on a paper published in Cognition!
[Cross posted at Experimental Philosophy]