The Use of the Number Three
Over the years, I have found that when deceptive people have to come up with a number they will often use the number three or a number that begins with three. Other interviewers have also noticed this pattern. Therefore, the number three has become known as the "liar's number." The one exception is when alcohol is involved. Any police officer can tell you what that number is - "Officer, I only had two drinks!"
I have not done any studies to see if deceptive people do rely on the number three. Currently this belief is based on observations as the number three will often appear in deceptive statements. In 2009, I conducted several studies on deceptive language. Two of the studies produced some interesting results in regards to the use of the number three.
I asked 100 people to write a statement about what they did on a particular day from the time they woke up until the time they went to sleep. From the time they got up until 1:00 p.m., the person was to write a truthful statement about what he or she did during that time period. For the time period of 1:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m., the person was told to make up a story about what he or she did during those five hours. From 6:00 p.m. to the time the person went to sleep, the participant was asked to write a truthful statement about what he or she did during the evening hours. The goal of this study was to compare truthful language with deceptive language in an attempt to see how the language changed and how it remained consistent. The study showed that the participants changed their language when being deceptive. Because everyone has their own vocabulary the changes varied with each participant. Therefore, the study did not identify any specific pattern in regards to changes in language.
Although it was not one of the objectives, the study showed that the number three often appeared in the deceptive portion of the statements. The participants had to write an untruthful statement for the time period of 1:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. Because of these time parameters, most of the participants started their deceptive story by mentioning the 1:00 time period as in, "At 1:00, I..." As they continued to write their deceptive story, the participants would also mention several other time references as they wrote about what they allegedly did. Most of them would end the deceptive portion of their story by mentioning the 6:00 time reference as in, "At 6:00, I..." As instructed, they finished their story with a truthful statement.
The study showed that when the participants wrote their deceptive statements, 48% of the time the first time reference mentioned was 3:00 or 3:30. This does not include the 1:00 p.m. time reference which was the starting point for their deceptive statement. The breakdown of what time reference was mentioned first when writing a deceptive story is as follows.
1:30 = 6%
2:00 or 2:30 = 23%
3:00 or 3:30 = 48%
4:00 or 4:30 = 14%
5:00 or 5:30 = 8%
Remember this was not a study on the number three and the study has several flaws in regards to the number three. There were only five numbers (1-5) the participants could choose. The majority of the time (52%) the participants did not first select the time of 3:00 p.m. or 3:30 p.m. However, it is interesting that 48% of the time when writing a deceptive story and given the choice of mentioning five numbers, the first time reference mention was 3:00 or 3:30.
In another study, 100 participants were told to write a fictional story about arriving home and finding that their house had been broken into. The goal of the study was to see what type of language would be used when writing a deceptive story from start to finish. The participants were told they could write anything they wanted to in making up the story but they had to include the following information in their statement:
1. The time they arrived at their residence.
2. Their front door was open.
3. The television in the living room was on.
4. Their gun collection was missing.
5. The number of guns that were stolen.
6. The value of the stolen guns.
In this study, the participants were not limited to any set of numbers when referring to how many guns were stolen. Since everyone has their own definition of the word collection, I expected to see a wide range of numbers which is what happened. The numbers used to describe how many guns were stolen ranged from 2 to 50. Here is a breakdown of the numbers used and how many people used that number in their story.
Number of guns taken
How many people used this number|
None of the participants stated that only one gun was taken from their residence. This is because every participant viewed the word "collection" as referring to more than one gun.
The number that was used the most often to state how many guns were stolen was the number three. Fifteen of the participants stated that three guns were taken from their residence. The next number that was frequently used was the number five; eleven of the participants used this number.
When we look at the double digit numbers, we see that the number most often used was the number thirty. Five people used this number.
When we consider all of the numbers we see that the number three appeared 21 times with the numbers 3, 30 and 35. The next closest number was two. It appeared 15 times with the numbers 2, 20, 21, 23, 24 and 25.
Again, the goal of this study was not to see if deceptive people use the number three. However, it is interesting that the number three was used more often than any other number.
What I have said all these years is that when the number three appears in a statement take a closer look at it. Ask a few more questions about this area of the statement. The use of the number three is not an absolute but an indication of deception. If the only suggestion of deception in a statement was the number three, I would most likely conclude that it was a truthful statement.