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Truth-telling linked to better health

6th August 2012

Researchers at the University of Notre Dame in France say that people feel healthier if they cut down on fibbing.

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A recent study presented at a convention of the American Psychological Association studied the effects on participants of a reduction in the number of lies they told from day to day.

Over a 10-week period, half of the 110 participants in the "Science of Honesty" study aged from 18-71 years were instructed to stop telling major and minor lies, while the other half were given no specific instructions at all.

Study lead author and Notre Dame psychology professor Anita Kelly said the study had found that participants could control the amount of lies they told, and reduce them dramatically when instructed to do so.

Kelly, who studies the science of secrets and self-disclosure, together with co-author Lijuan Wang, carried out the research with a group of participants, 65% of whom were college students, who had an average age of 31.

Kelly told the conference that Americans tell about 11 lies per week, on average.

A dramatic reduction in lying was associated in the study with significantly improved health, the study showed, particularly in the group that had been instructed not to lie. The no-lying group also saw an increase in the effects of reduced lying over the 10-week period.

Over the course of the study, the participants completed weekly questionnaires about their health and relationships, and took lie detector tests to gauge whether they were telling the truth about the number of lies, major and minor, they had told that week.

Among participants in the no-lie group, a reduction of just three white lies in the course of any given week was associated with a reduction of at least four mental health complaints, which might include feelings of tension or melancholy, compared with other weeks.

Three fewer white lies were also associated with three fewer physical complaints, which might include sore throats or headaches, in a given week.

However, the control group experienced only two fewer mental-health complaints on average, and just one less physical complaint, if they told three fewer white lies in a single week.

The results for major lies followed a similar pattern.

The truthful group told significantly fewer lies across the study period than the control group, and saw themselves as "more honest" by week 5.

They also reported improved relationships and interactions with others, which they described as going more smoothly when they told no lies.

Wang, who was responsible for the statistical analysis in the study, said that the improvement in relationships was statistically associated with the improvements reported in participants' overall physical and mental health.

According to Kelly, the truth-telling participants began simply to tell the truth about their daily accomplishments rather than exaggerating, or stopped making false excuses for being late or failing to complete tasks.

Some found ways to distract a questioner if they did not wish to respond truthfully, countering with another question, she said.


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