If you fail a test, you might think it was because the test was unfair, or your teacher doesn't like you. But if your brother fails a test, you're more likely to think it's because he didn't study hard enough. Believe it or not, that's an example of a well-studied phenomenon in psychology, called the Fundamental Attribution Error. In this Science Update, you'll hear how it applies to lying.


The truth about little white lies. I'm Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

We've all told a white lie at one time or another. For instance, telling a friend that her horrible haircut looks nice, or that we make more money than we actually do.

In a recent study, University of Central Oklahoma psychology student Kelly Lawson looked at how people really felt about such fibbing.

She and a colleague asked volunteers to imagine themselves in several different scenarios, where either they or someone else tells what Lawson refers to as "a feeling-type" lie.


A feeling-type lie are lies about effects, emotions, opinions, and evaluations. And this would be like feigning feelings to seem either more positive or less negative than they really are.

The volunteers then judged how harmful the lie was, and why they or the other person lied.


I found in general that people see their lies as being less harmful and more due to the situation and not one's own personality. But if another person was lying in a very similar situation, they were much more likely to blame personality characteristics.

Previous studies have shown that we tend to judge ourselves less harshly than we judge others. Now, Lawson says her study shows the concept applies to lying as well.

For the American Association for the Advancement of Science, I'm Bob Hirshon.

Making Sense of the Research

The Fundamental Attribution Error can be summarized this way: if you do something bad, it's because of the situation; if someone else does something bad, it's a character flaw. This makes sense for two reasons: first, we generally need to see ourselves as good people (unless you're Dr. Evil or Darth Vader), so we rationalize away our failings; and second, on a more practical note, we understand our own justifications better than other people's, because many of these justifications exist only in our own heads, or are the product of our unique constellation of experiences and perceptions.

To see how this applies to lying, Lawson and her colleague, Kathleen Donovan, designed a study with fairly strict parameters. As Lawson mentions, they stuck to "feeling-type lies"—lies about emotions, opinions, and judgments—which include what we commonly call "little white lies." The researchers described several scenarios: some in which people were asked to imagine themselves lying, and others in which they were asked to imagine another person lying. In some of these scenarios, the liar benefited from the lie (for example, saying you had a great date last night when it was really a disaster); in others, the lie benefited the person being lied to (for example, an insincere compliment on an ugly outfit). Using a six-point scale, the study's participants were asked to rate a) the harmfulness of the lie and b) whether the lie was more related to the liar's personality or the situation.

Overall, the results confirmed that the fundamental attribution error does apply to lying. But they also suggested some interesting nuances. For example, both genders saw their own lies as less harmful than other people's lies, but the difference was greater for women. In other words, women saw their own lies as less harmful than men did, and saw other people's lies as more harmful. Women also rated lying as less harmful overall than men did.

This study also underscores the idea that lying is not terribly unusual in human society. Past research has shown that lying, especially feeling-type lying, is incredibly common: a 1996 study, for example, found that 1 in 3 social interactions between college students involved lying, and that 1 in 5 interactions in the general community were deceitful. With so much lying going on, it's no wonder that we're not always quick to judge it—especially when we're doing the lying.

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. What is the Fundamental Attribution Error? Give an example (not mentioned above) that would illustrate this phenomenon in action.
  2. Why do you think the Fundamental Attribution Error exists?
  3. In any experiment, an independent variable is something the experimenter changes around in order to test its effects, and a dependent variable is something that he or she measures to get results. What were the independent variables in this experiment? What were the dependent variables?
  4. Why do you think women were less likely to rate lying as harmful overall, and saw a greater difference between their own lies and the lies of others?

For Educators

The Encyclopedia of Psychology has links to nearly 2,000 psychological resources on the Net.

Science-based books on the psychology of lying include Charles V. Ford's Lies! Lies! Lies!: The Psychology of Deceit (American Psychiatric Press, 1999) and Aldert Vrij's Detecting Lies and Deceit: The Psychology of Lying and the Implications for Professional Practice (John Wiley & Sons, 2000).

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