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How Much Do Candidates Lie?

August 2, 2012

What would you do in the following situation? You are given a page of 20 math items to complete and you will be paid $1 for every item that you answer correctly. At the end of 5 minutes, you score your own test, shred the paper, and tell the administrator how many you got right. Would you lie to the administrator about how many you answered correctly? If so, by how much?


Researchers at Duke University conducted this exact experiment and learned a lot about lying. I’ll tell you more about what they found in a minute.


I am asked about lying a lot. Most of the assessments that we develop and implement have questions that ask about one’s personal beliefs and values. Candidates typically rate their agreement to these questions and therefore they can choose to answer these questions honestly or dishonestly. On a regular basis, we are asked if candidates lie or if the assessment works when people have the opportunity to lie on the assessment. It is true that the opportunity is there and no one knows exactly if an applicant, who is motivated to become employed, will answer every question truthfully. What we do know is exactly what the Duke University researchers found out – a lot of people lie a little and very few people lie a lot. (See this article to learn more about this research) 


Ok, so back to the math questions. On average, participants in the experiment told the administrator that they solved six items correctly when they really only solved four. It was common for people to slightly increase their number correct. The researchers state that they conducted this experiment on over 30,000 people and only had about a dozen participants who greatly exaggerated the number they got right. However, about 18,000 of those participants lied a little bit.


When it comes to assessments and lying, we see a similar pattern. Most applicants will slightly exaggerate their responses to some of the questions. Because, as the Duke study concluded, most applicants are proportionately doing the same thing, it doesn’t greatly affect the accuracy of the assessment. People who should score higher still do and people who should score lower still do. What this means is that the assessment is still identifying the best candidates and our clients are progressing the right people. Applicants who do outright “lie” may be progressed to additional stages of the hiring process.  However, they must be able to continue lying throughout the entire process for it to work to their benefit. In our experience, a very small percentage of applicants can do that.


So, in sum, yes some candidates lie – but not in great numbers and not enough to affect the accuracy of most well developed and validated assessment tools. 

Amie Lawrence, Ph.D. Amie Lawrence, Ph.D. is the Director of Global Innovation at PSI and an expert in the design, development, and validation of psychological assessment tools. She runs an innovation lab that is responsible for establishing PSI’s assessment technology roadmap and strategy. An integral member of PSI since 2000, Amie has led the development of numerous global assessments, including personality, situational judgment, cognitive, and interactive work simulations.