Numbers sell. A lot of news stories now-a days speak about surveys taken about one’s sleeping habits, shopping preferences, eating out, sexual prowess, computer habits –in short pick up any topic and there sure is a survey somewhere giving you some kind of numbers about it.

So how do you determine if the surveys done are accurate, or people covered under it are being honest about it? Psychologists have repeatedly found in their studies that people tend to either exaggerate or underplay the truth. It is not lying consciously but a social response to a situation.

An experiment with dice in South Africa by scientists has found that dice can make people come out with the truth. When South Africa wanted to conduct a survey about whether or not farmers had killed leopards (an illegal practice), the surveyors brought along a die. (Source newscientist.com)

The modus operandi was that if the farmers tossed the die and got a one they had to respond in ‘yes’ to the surveyor’s question and if they threw six it had to be a ‘no’ to the question. But they had to answer truthfully to all the numbers in-between that came up at the toss of a die. The die was hidden from the surveyor so he was unaware of the numbers that came up.

They found that the numbers of positive answers to the leopard question went up more than one-sixth.

This method is called the randomized response technique. It provided the anonymity or blind that was needed to get an honest answer from the farmers without the fear of being caught out. It was estimated that almost twenty percent of farmers had killed leopards within the last year.

Hopefully the survey will help the government to formulate a programme which compensates for the livestock loss and protects the leopards
It has been proved time and again that people tend to be less than honest in giving answers to survey questions.

 “The tendency of people to portray themselves in a more favourable light than their thoughts or actions, called socially desirable responding, is a problem that affects the validity of statistics and surveys worldwide,” writes Ashok K. Lalwani, assistant professor of marketing, University of Texas, San Antonio (UTSA),

"People tend to up their own status and deflate that of others," said Stephen Ceci, Cornell professor of developmental psychology, and that could be one reason people lie on surveys. He was speaking at a panel discussion at the Survey Research Institute's Annual Speaker Series.

Another reason why people may lie on surveys, Ceci said, is that survey questions may "engender a conscious protective or defensive response." People may not want others to know something about them or may be embarrassed by the survey questions.

There are varied examples to prove some of the above points. Generally it is believed that men tend to boast of their sexual conquests and exaggerate. But a study found something different. The survey found that women lied about the number of sexual partners. When the same women were made to believe that they were hooked up to a lie-detector the numbers went up considerably. Men were more consistent with their answers. (Terri Fisher at Ohio State University and Michele Alexander at the University of Maine conducted the test).

In another survey men were found to be lying about their response to common fears like rats, roller coasters and mice. When they were asked to list their responses in a simple question answer format their fear factor was low. But when the same group was exposed to the videos of roller coaster ride, rats and mice and told their heart beats would be monitored, they gave more honest answers. Women were found to be more consistent here.

More careful thought and survey design can improve the accuracy of people's responses, but "lying is not the full story," according to Ceci.