Monday 21 September 2020

051 – The good, the bad, and the flat-out liars. Real English Conversation

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Imagine if you will, the following scenario. You’ve volunteered to take part in a psychology study, say, at your university. All you have to do is show up to the lab, sit by yourself in a little booth and play a very simple game of chance, something like flipping a coin, where there’s no skill involved, only luck. You get paid one dollar just for showing up, that’s guaranteed. And if you’re lucky and win the game, you’ll get paid 5 dollars cash. But if you lose, you get nothing.

Here’s the kicker: it’s up to you to tell the researchers if you won or lost, they won’t be able to tell.

So there are three possible outcomes: you can win and get 5 dollars, you can lose and get nothing, or….you can lose, but lie and still get the 5 dollars. And nobody will know. What would you do? What do you think other people would do?

As it happens, a recent study just looked at this, and there was a cunning little twist: those crafty researchers actually DID know if people won or lost. So they also knew if people told the truth about it or if they lied.

The study, called “Cheaters, Liars, or Both? A New Classification of Dishonesty Profiles” is absolutely fascinating. And today you’ll hear a conversation ‒ in American English – with some people discussing it. The conversation is from one of my favorite podcasts, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe. It’s a podcast featuring smart people having interesting discussions about science, technology, and critical thinking. If you are at all interested in those topics, I highly recommend it for your English listening practice. This is definitely a show that will make you smarter, and will teach you lots of vocabulary. The episodes don’t always have transcripts, but I’ve transcribed the part you’re going to hear today and put it in the show notes, which you can find at

You know, if you like, you can turn this episode into a more challenging task for yourself. In the show notes you’ll also find a link to a New York Times article about the study. In the conversation you’ll hear a woman summarizing this same article to her friends. So before you continue listening, you can hit pause and go read the article yourself. Then imagine how you might summarize it for friend and what you might discuss. What language would you use? What vocabulary would you need? Spend a few moments imagining how you might talk about it with a group of friends. Then listen to the rest of this podcast and compare your ideas with what you hear in the conversation.

All right, let’s get to it. You’ll hear a woman named Cara doing most of the talking. She explains the study’s findings to her friends Steve, Bob, Jay, and Evan. They they all discuss what they make of it. Are you ready? Let’s go:

Get the full transcript here

Steve: All right, Cara, you’re gonna tell us about the psychology of lying and cheating.

Cara: Right! So this is a field of psychological inquiry that goes back basically to the beginning of experimental psychology, right? Psychologists, psychologists have always been interested in deception. So a new paper said, OK, well, we want to do is we want to see if we can sort of beef up and retest some old concepts in the kind of construct of lying, cheating deception, but we want to go beyond that. And we want to say, Okay, this is not an all or nothing phenomenon, right? Like, you could say, That person’s a liar, or that person lied, or that person’s a cheater, that person’s dishonest, but there are shades of grey, aren’t there?

Steve: Mm hmm.

Evan: Of course, of course.

Bob: Yeah, absolutely. Little white lies.

Cara: Totally. There lies that actually help us.

Bob: There are lies that actually get people killed.

Cara: Yep. Lies to get people killed and lies that we can’t help but but commit, that’s not a good word. But tell? Yeah, because they’re the only they’re the best of a bad situation we’re dealing with or something like that. So they set up, you know, a standard classic laboratory psychology paradigm, which does not necessarily translate to the real world. So let’s keep that in mind. And they set up two paradigms. One of them was a coin flip paradigm, and one of them was a die roll paradigm.

And basically, they said, you know, if you roll heads, you get money. If you roll tails, you get no money. Or if you flip heads, if you flip tails, and then on the die paradigm, they went into levels. So they said, you know, if you roll a one, you get $1, a two, you get $2, a three $3. But if you roll a six, that’s unlucky, so you get no dollars. So those are basically the two experiments that they ran.

And they found that people by and large, had similar response. There were people who were totally honest. So they would flip the coin, they would hit heads, and they would say, got heads, give me my five bucks. Or they would flip tails and they would say, you know, I flipped tails. I don’t get any money. Okay, cool. All right. So you could flip a coin, and you’re gonna be lucky enough that you flip heads you’re, and that’s where you get a $5 payout, you’re probably gonna say, hey, look, I flipped heads, you’re gonna be honest about that, because you want the money.

So they decided, let’s take all those people out of the equation. And let’s just look at the people who flip tails. Because now all the sudden there’s incentive, right? You could either flip tails, and not get the money and be honest about it. And that is what 41% of the people in the lab setting where they did it in front of actual researchers said, only 37% of people in a Mechanical Turk situation.

So Mechanical Turk, have you guys ever used that? I think it’s Amazon’s like survey, study software. And so this is like it’s a coin flip simulation online. So it was this slightly lower number, it was 37%. But still, less than half of the people who flipped tails reported honestly that they flipped tails.

Then there was another group that they called the “cheating non liars.” I love this. So these people flip the coin got tails, and were like, “Crap, I’m just gonna keep flipping until I get heads,” which was breaking the rules, the rules was you flip once, but they said, screw it. I’m just gonna keep flipping. And then when they finally got heads, they were like, Hey, I got heads, let me have my $5.

So this was 17% of the people in front of researchers. 7% of the people online, and another group were what they called “the liars.” So these people flipped the coin got tails, and just straight up, go, “No, I got heads.” 23% of people just straight up lied. And then they found a fourth group. And this group is fascinating, you guys. They called them the “radically dishonest people.” And this is the group that I’m really interested in, like, can we develop a psychometric tool so that we can test these people and then start learning about them? So these people didn’t even bother to flip the coin!

Group: Wow! Whoa!

Cara: They just go, “Oh, yeah, I got heads.”

Group: Wow. Whoa.

Cara: So it’s like, they were like double liars. They lied about participating, and they lied about the outcome.

Steve: What about “lying sack of shit?” What group were they in?

Group: [Laughter]

Cara: I think that’s radically dishonest, the lying sack of shits.

Evan: Oh, man.

Cara: And so this is really fascinating, because I think there are two components here that we we maybe intuitively thought about, just like Bob mentioned earlier, you know, there’s the lies that could get you killed. There’s also the lies that just feel cruel, or they feel like pathologically dishonest and then there are the lies where it’s like, I understand the ethical or moral reason that this person lied. And I think we can start to dig deep into just this very clean laboratory experiment to tease out some of those issues. For example, you’ve got your straight-up honest people, you’ve got straight-up lucky people, then you’ve got your just straight-up liars.


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PDF transcript of this podcast episode

Link to the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe Podcast episode
The Good, the Bad and the ‘Radically Dishonest’ – New York Times article

Link to full text of the actual study “ Cheaters, Liars, or Both? A New Classification of Dishonesty Profiles.”

Link to the actual game website used in the study. Try playing it yourself!



This is a great book by Scott Adams (creator of the Dilbert cartoons) about critical thinking and all the ways our brain tries to fool us by Scott Adams. This link is to the summary version on Blinkist, which contains audio so you can listen as you read.

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