WE LIE.

We lie to strangers, to friends and to lovers. Particularly to lovers.

In a recent Washington Post telephone survey, a total of 507 of 513 randomly selected men and women said they have occasionally told a lie. The other six? They probably lied. But more about them later.

We may tell occasional lies, but we are not liars. Almost 4 out of 5 people interviewed said the average person is basically honest. But we're on the negative slope: 44 percent said people are less honest now than they were 10 years ago. Only 6 percent said people were more honest.

Who lies? The better question is, who doesn't?

Our leaders lie. More than 7 of 10 people involved in our survey said that Ronald Reagan told a serious lie in the past year. Reagan also was named as the person who told the biggest lie of 1987. In a virtual tie for second: Jim Bakker and Oliver North.

Our lovers lie. "A man told me he had a vasectomy," said one woman when we asked people in the survey to recount the biggest lie they were ever told. Some love lies were manipulative. "My girlfriend told me she went to bed with another guy, and I was crushed. Later, she told me she lied to see how much I cared." Some were sad. "He said he wanted to have a baby, and when the baby came, he left because of too much stress." Lies told for love were the most frequently mentioned type of big lies told to poll respondents, an expected but still disquieting finding.

Lies can hurt, and some can kill. "Someone told me that he had taken the AIDS test and it was negative, and I found out that he never had the test."

The poll results disclosed that Washington liars can be classified by the number and intensity of the lies they tell. How many different kinds of liars are there? Five. No lie. Here's how we know:

We asked each of our telephone respondents if he or she had ever told a white lie. If they answered yes, they were given a point. Then they were read a list of seven white lies. For each lie they said they had told, they were given an additional point.

Next they were asked if they had ever told a major lie. If they answered yes, they were given one point.

Little liars scored two or three points; perfectly awful liars scored the maximum of nine points. Here's our Liars Scorecard for the Washington area:

1. THE PERFECTLY TRUTHFUL. If you can believe it, or them, 1 percent of all Washington-area residents surveyed said they had never told a lie. Not a big lie. Not a small lie. Never fibbed about their weight or about their age. Never lied to avoid an unwelcome social invitation. Four of these six truthful people were 59 years old or older. Only one was a man. But he also said he worked for the federal government. Never lied? These truth-tellers may be the biggest liars of all.

2. PERSISTENT TRUTH-TELLERS. All of these people acknowledged they had told a white lie or two. But only 4 percent said they had ever told a major lie sometime in their lives. Women, Republicans and less affluent individuals said they told fewer lies than did men, Democrats or wealthier persons, and therefore were disproportionately represented in this group. Persistent truth-tellers make up about 24 percent of all area residents, according to the poll.

3. REAL PEOPLE. Everyone in this group acknowledged telling little fibs. And almost 2 out of 5 also said they've told a major lie. Significantly, members of this group were slightly more trusting of others than those who scored higher and lower on the Liars Index. Perhaps excessive truthfulness or dishonesty is associated with increased suspicion and cynicism. Anyway, the survey suggests that about 45 percent of all Washington-area residents would fall into this group.

4. PREVARICATORS. Big or small, lies come relatively easily to their lips: All of these storytellers had told at least half of the white lies listed in the survey, and 80 percent acknowledged telling a serious lie. This group was disproportionately young: More than half -- 57 percent -- of all those between the ages of 18 and 34 were found in this group. These chronic liars were far more likely to believe that others believed their lies. More than 9 of 10 prevaricators -- 92 percent -- said others believed their lies some or all of the time, compared with 68 percent of those who told relatively few lies. Prevaricators make up about 29 percent of all area residents.

5. THE MAXIMUM LIARS. These strangers to the truth scored a perfectly imperfect 9 on the informal Liars Index. That's quite an achievement, even for Washington. Only two people in the survey scored a 9 -- that projects out to less than 1 percent of the area population. For the record, both big liars in The Post survey were men. Both were in their twenties. Both were Democrats.

These big liars, like most rare objects, are a puzzling lot. They are liars who tell the truth about lying. But then again, maybe this pair lied about their lying.

Which brings up the Problem With Lying. If nothing or no one can be believed, then what is the truth? In fact, practicing sophists can turn this analysis neatly on its head. Perhaps men, Democrats, the young and the rich are not more prone to prevarication. Perhaps they simply are more truthful about their lies. Sure, that's it. That's the truth revealed in these numbers.

Trust me. I never lied to you before.

A total of 513 randomly selected adults living in the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area were interviewed by telephone between Oct. 31 and Nov. 2 for this poll. The margin of sampling error for the overall results is plus or minus 5 percentage points. Sampling error is, however, only one of many potential sources of error in this or any other public opinion poll. In some cases, percentages total less than 100 because interviewees either had no opinion or did not respond.

Kenneth E. John, Washington Post polling analyst, contributed to this study.

DO YOU THINK the average person is basically honest or basically dishonest?

Basically honest: 78%

Basically dishonest: 14% 2. Generally speaking, do you think people today are more honest than they were 10 years ago, less honest than they were, or about the same as they were 10 years ago?

More honest: 6%

Less honest: 44%

About the same: 46% 3. I'm going to name a few reasons for lying. For each, tell me whether you think the average person lies for this reason frequently {F}, sometimes {S}, hardly ever {H} or never {N}. Here's the first reason:

To cover up something they did wrong: 47% (F), 45% (S), 6% (H), 2% (N)

To make themselves seem more important: 35% (F), 50% (S), 12% (H), 2% (N)

To avoid an unpleasant social situation: 43% (F), 45% (S), 9% (H), 2% (N)

Because it seems easier to lie than to tell the truth: 23% (F), 41% (S), 24% (H), 9% (N)

To get ahead at work: 25% (F), 41% (S), 24% (H), 7% (N)

To avoid hurting someone's feelings: 44% (F), 45% (S), 7% (H), 3% (N)

To avoid embarrassment: 41% (F), 51% (S), 4% (H), 3% (N) 4. On another subject, some people say there are two basic kinds of lies. The first kind are "little white lies," which are not meant to harm anyone. The other kind are serious lies that conceal wrongdoing. Would you say that most people tell white lies a great deal, a fair amount or hardly ever?

A great deal: 27%

A fair amount: 58%

Hardly ever: 11% 5. Do you think it is usually right or usually wrong to tell a white lie?

Usually right: 25%

Usually wrong: 64% 6. Have you ever told one?

Yes: 92%

No: 7% 7. Now I'm going to read to you some "white lies" that people often tell. For each, please say whether or not you, personally, have ever told a white lie similar to the one I mention.

Telling someone you didn't want to see, "How nice to see you": 62%

Telling a store, "The check bounced because my bank has my account balance all messed up": 10%

Telling someone who has invited you to a social function, "We can't make it; we've made other plans": 70%

Telling someone after you've had a little too much to drink, "I'm okay to drive": 22%

Telling someone you did better in school than you really did: 26%

Telling a friend you weighed less than you actually did: 31%

Lying about your age to a friend: 14% 8. Would you say that most people tell serious lies a great deal, a fair amount or hardly ever?

A great deal: 11%

A fair amount: 30%

Hardly ever: 54% 9. Have you ever told one?

Yes: 43%

No: 53% 10. Do you feel that when you tell a lie, the person always believes you, sometimes believes you or never believes you?

Always: 16%

Sometimes: 69%

Never: 9% 11. When people are caught in a lie, how often do they tell another lie to cover up?

Frequently: 58%

Sometimes: 32%

Hardly ever: 6%

Never: 1%

ACH OF US KNOWS what lies we tell, but we are also good at remembering the lies we've been told. All of our telephone survey respondents were asked to recall the biggest lie they had ever been told, or a serious lie that they had been told recently. Few were at a loss for words: :: I work at the zoo, and someone let an animal out of its cage and denied it. :: My mother told me she invited all her relatives to my wedding. Nobody showed up because she didn't invite them. She was embarrassed because I married at 20 and my bride was 16 years old. :: I asked my girlfriend if she'd been making love to someone else, and she said, "Of course not." She also told me her mother had been killed in a car accident; later, I had the occasion to meet her mother, and {my girlfriend} acted like she had never told me that. Boy, was I dumb and young. :: Someone told me that the Army was going to be fun. :: My girlfriend told me she went to bed with another guy, and I was crushed. Later, she told me she lied to see how much I cared. :: Ronald Reagan saying that he's not going to raise taxes. :: That Reagan said he would balance the budget. :: That Reagan didn't know anything about the contra affair. :: "Hi, I'm from the government, and I'm here to help you." :: Recently, my son told me he was going to a neighbor's house for a party, and he actually went to Georgetown. :: This girl told me that she was pregnant.

He said he wanted to have a baby, and when the baby came, he left because of too much stress. :: "It doesn't hurt to have a baby." :: I lied to myself about my own abilities and also that there is no prejudice in the world. :: "Life is a bowl of cherries." :: Someone told me that he wrote a very well-known song, and I believed him. :: A friend told me he had a better paying job than he did. :: A girlfriend told me she knew Bruce Springsteen. But she didn't. :: A stockbroker gave us wrong information, and based on that we made a decision and we lost money. :: One of my employes called in sick. Then he went on an interview for another job. :: That they were Catholic when they were Jewish. :: My children said they never tried pot. :: When I was a kid, my father told me there were two suns setting. I ran to the backyard, and there was only one. :: My grandmother had died, and I was told that she had not died. I got very emotional because I expected her to be still alive. :: Someone told me that he had taken the AIDS test and it was negative, and I found out that he never had the test. :: That they were faithful. They weren't. :: My dad said he didn't have cancer, but he does. He later told me he did, but it was a good while later, after he realized that I knew. :: A guy told me he was going to marry me and left me at the altar. :: "I've had a vasectomy." :: A doctor told me my son had leukemia, but I got a second opinion and he was wrong. :: Probably that she loved me. Her concept of love doesn't align with the rest of the population. :: "I'm not cheating on you -- that's my ex-husband." :: "I'm not messing around, honey." :: My husband said he wasn't having an affair. :: "I love you." I've been married two times, and both my wives told me that. :: My wife said she was not seeing somebody else. :: They weren't married. They were. :: No one has recently lied. My husband changes things, but I don't consider that lying. :: Someone told me that they loved me, but he lied, and I consider that to be a serious lie to me. :: My wife saying she wasn't fooling around. :: "I'm going off drugs." :: A person said he was born in Africa, but he was born in South Carolina. :: "I'm pregnant." :: "The Earth will come to an end in the year 1985." :: Someone's golf score. My friend bet me about golf and lied about his score. :: My first wife when she said she was gonna love me forever. :: I was told that I had to be laid off, and I did not believe I did have to be. :: That they never told a lie. :: He said that he loved me. :: One: "Check is in the mail." Two: "Honey, I love you." :: I was promised a birthday present and never got it. :: My child told me something about school, and in front of the teacher I found out he was lying. :: My best friend's husband lied to her to try to break our friendship. :: My boyfriend misinformed me about his other women friends. :: My boyfriend said, "I love you very much." I found out it wasn't true. :: That they loved me. They just lied. ::

THE PEOPLE INTERVIEWED in The Post's telephone survey were given the names of nine public figures. Then they were asked if they believed that person had told a very serious lie in the past year.

Jim Bakker: 80%

Gary Hart: 80%

Marion Barry: 77%

Ronald Reagan: 72%

John Poindexter: 64%

Oliver North: 61%

Jessica Hahn: 59%

Joe Biden: 45%

Robert Bork: 38%

Then poll respondents were asked which of the individuals told the most serious lie.

Ronald Reagan: 32%

Jim Bakker: 19%

Oliver North: 15%

Marion Barry: 12%

John Poindexter: 8%

Gary Hart: 6%

Robert Bork: 3%

Joe Biden: 2%

Jessica Hahn: 2%

Third, they were asked to name any other well-known person who they thought had told a very serious lie in the past year. The following names were volunteered. (The numbers in parentheses are the number of times the individual was named -- they are not percentages.)

George Bush (12)

Jerry Falwell (10)

William Casey (8)

Edwin Meese (6)

Ted Kennedy (5)

Pat Robertson (5)

Mikhail Gorbachev (4)

Jesse Jackson (3)

Richard Nixon (3)

Oral Roberts (3)

All politicians (2)

Tammy Bakker (2)

Jack Herrity (2)

C. Everett Koop (2)

Donald Regan (2)

William Donald Schaefer (2)

George Shultz (2)

Caspar Weinberger (2)

Cora Wilds (2)

Ivan Boesky (1)

Robert Byrd (1)

Prince Charles (1)

Jack Kent Cooke (1)

Robert Dole (1)

Michael Deaver (1)

Fawn Hall (1)

Lee Hart (1)

Ayatollah Khomeini (1)

Robert McFarlane (1)

Evan Mecham (1)

Tip O'Neill (1)

Dan Rostenkowski (1)

Frank Sinatra (1)

Gene Upshaw (1)

World leaders -- all of them (1)

Andrew Young (1)