Searching for the Truth

The science of honesty.

“No legacy is so rich as honesty.”

― William Shakespeare,
All’s Well That Ends Well

The facts about honesty:

Honesty increases:

• self-esteem
• capacity for compassion
• capacity for intimacy
• social connections

Honesty decreases:

• muscle tension
• sore throats
• headaches
• nausea

(Source 1, Source 2)

What men & women lie about*

• Their accomplishments: 28% of men, 17% of women
• On their Facebook profile: 24% of men, 17% of women
• On their resumé: 22% of men, 16% of women
• To their doctors: 26% of women, 17% of men
• To their parents: 44% of women, 37% of men
• To their friends: 44% of men, 38% of women

* from a survey of over 1,200 Americans


How 400 Americans rate their own honesty:

• Very honest 26%
• Honest 48%
• Somewhat honest 14%
• Neutral 9%
• Somewhat dishonest 1%
• Dishonest 1%
• Very dishonest 1%


Most honest countries

1. Denmark
2. New Zealand
3. Finland
4. Singapore
5. Sweden
6. Switzerland
7. Norway
8. Netherlands
9. Canada
10. Luxembourg

Least honest countries

1. Somalia
2. South Sudan
3. Syria
4. North Korea
5. Yemen
6. Afghanistan
7. Equatorial Guinea
8. Guinea Bissau
9. Sudan
10. Burundi


To foster honesty in relationships, ATTUNE to trust

Awareness of your partner’s emotion
Turning toward the emotion
Tolerance of two different viewpoints
trying to Understand your partner
Non-defensive responses to your partner
and responding with Empathy


“I have come to the conclusion that our character, with respect to matters of honesty and dishonesty, is pretty much a mixed bag. I don’t see a lot of evidence for the virtue of honesty being widespread, but I don’t see a lot of evidence for the vice of dishonesty being widespread either.”

— Christian Miller

author, The Character Gap


Pamela Meyer, author of Liespotting, tells you how to recognize deception

Three Ways to Help Your Kid Be More Honest

Practical tips from Maryam Abdullah, a developmental psychologist.

1. Praise process, not intelligence

Parents praise their children when they do something positive. But merely praising the result can inadvertently encourage dishonesty. A study showed that when children were praised for being “so smart,” they were more likely to cheat on a test, but when told, “You did very well this time,” or offered no praise, they were less likely to cheat. So rather than encouraging a “fixed” mindset by commenting on intelligence, encourage a growth mindset praising effort in the face of a challenge: “I noticed that you stuck with that game even when it got tricky until you figured out a strategy that worked!”

2. Beware the downsides of rewards

Rewards like sweet treats or small toys might help children do things they aren’t motivated to do, but such rewards may have unintended consequences for children’s honesty. In one study, kids were asked to complete a puzzle to help a girl find her way home; some were told they’d get a lollipop for correctly solving the puzzle, while others were not. Children working for a lollipop reward were twice as likely to peek at the solution when the researcher stepped out of the room compared to the other children. Bottom line: rewards can undermine intrinsic motivation.

3. Ask kids to make a commitment

A study found that children are more honest after making a commitment to be. During a guessing game, some kids were simply told not to peek while the researcher was out of the room; others were told not to peek and said “OK” in agreement; others were told not to peek and repeated, “I will not turn around and peek at the toy.” Children who repeated the full commitment were less likely to peek compared to the others; simply saying “OK” didn’t seem to promote honesty. The children who repeated the verbal commitment seemed to be more aware of the tension between wanting to peek and wanting to make good on their word.

(Adapted from this article at Greater Good Science Center, where Abdullah is the Parenting Program Director.)

Dig Deeper

More reading on the topic of honesty.

The Truth About Movies

Concussion (2015) | The Crucible (1996) | The Emperor’s Club (2002) | A Few Good Men (1992) | The Insider (1999) | Jerry Maguire (1996) | Knives Out (2019) | Les Miserables (1998) | Liar Liar (1997) | Meet the Parents (2000) | A Monster Calls (2016) | Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) | Mumford (1999) | Michael Clayton (2007) | Pinocchio (1940) | Rashomon (1950) | Quiz Show (1994) | Sliding Doors (1998) | Sommersby (1993) | Spotlight (2015) | Sunset Boulevard (1950) | The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) | Trumbo (2015) | Willie Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971) | Win Win (2011)

Special reporting for the Honesty project by Ashley Decker.