In some cases, people will tell a lie in order to appear more honest, new research indicates. The result shows evidence that highly favorable circumstances can prompt people to fudge the truth, even at personal monetary cost.

“We know that people lie to be nice to other people; that’s something people find to be acceptable. This is a slightly different thing: Your lie isn’t helping anyone else. You’re worried about appearing dishonest, so that causes you to lie in some circumstances,”

says Alex Shaw, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Chicago.

Weighing The Costs

Using a range of online experiments and interactive games, the researchers discovered that people sometimes weigh the cost to their reputation more heavily than the cost to their pockets[1].

For instance, a person who drives to work functions may underreport their mileage for expenses. A lawyer who works unusually high hours may bill fewer, to avoid making a client feel cheated. A winner of several consecutive coin flips may sprinkle in a few losses.

In one experiment, Shaw and colleagues asked 115 lawyers in Israel to imagine giving a client an estimate of 60 to 90 billable hours. Half of the participants were told that they actually worked 60 hours, while the other half were told they worked 90. The clients had no way to verify the hours.

On average, the 60-hours group reported working 62.5 hours, with 17% of respondents falsely inflating their time spent. The 90-hours group, however, reported an average of 88 hours — with 18% of respondents falsely underreporting how long they worked.

Would I Lie To You?

The researchers found similar results elsewhere. In another experiment with 149 undergraduate students in Israel, participants played online dice-rolling and coin-flipping games, winning $0.15 for each successful roll or flip that they reported.

The games were rigged for half the students, ensuring them 12 wins in 12 tries. Nearly a quarter of those participants underreported their wins, compared to just 4% of the control group.

“While our findings may seem counterintuitive, I think most people will recognize a time in their lives when they were motivated to tell a lie to appear honest,”

says lead author Shoham Choshen-Hillel, a former postdoctoral fellow now at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Choshen-Hillel acknowledges that real-world scenarios could produce different results, especially given higher monetary stakes. But she stressed that the costs of appearing dishonest in the lab are also much lower, which means that people would likely make similar calculations in their daily lives — weighing monetary and reputational incentives when deciding how to act.

Shaw hopes future research can uncover clearer boundaries between people who lie to protect their reputation for truthfulness and those who do so out of selfishness.

“It would be interesting to demonstrate that the people who are lying to appear honest are different from the people who are lying in self-interest — to demonstrate that those are very different kinds of motives,”

he says.

[1] Choshen-Hillel, Shoham,Shaw, Alex,Caruso, Eugene M. Lying to appear honest. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

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