Appearing honest may be more important than actually being honest.
That's the take away from a new study suggesting that, in order to maintain one's reputation as honest, it may be better to lie than to tell the truth.
Researchers had already established the existence of prosocial lies — lies for the greater good — but the findings shine a light on an understudied aspect of lying.
“When people are concerned with appearing to do the right thing, they might go down the wrong path,” study lead researcher Shoham Choshen-Hillel tells Inverse. “They predict other people are going to be suspicious and judge them morally and negatively, so they lie.”
“All this is in the name of reputation or appearances,” she says.
The study was published Thursday in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.
To lie or not to lie
The researchers drew their counterintuitive conclusion from three multi-part experiments involving participants from Israel, the United States, and the United Kingdom.
In one of the experiments, participants were given a hypothetical scenario in which they had to drive for work trips, and had their expenses covered up to 400 miles per month. In the scenario, most other employees drove between 280 and 320 miles per month. The group was then split into half: One half was told they drove 300 miles, while the other were told they drove 400 miles. They were then asked to self-report their mileage. While most of the 300-mile group reported the truth, 12 percent of the participants in the 400-mile group reported driving 16 miles fewer on average than the 400 miles.
As a result, they gave up some of the compensation they were entitled to. When asked why they lied, the participants' responses tended along the lines of: “Well, my manager would think that I lied, they wouldn't believe I drove that much," Choshen-Hillel says.
“It depends how costly it is to tell the truth."
In the second experiment, 149 university students played online gambling games where they earned 15 cents for every win. The highest winners also won a bonus. Half of the participants received randomized results, while the other half played a manipulated version of the game where they earned a perfect score each time. In the group where the outcome was random, 3 of them (4 percent) underreported their scores. In the group where the results were perfect, 18 of the participants — almost one in four — underreported wins.
“They knew that they deserved to be paid a bonus, but they didn’t have any evidence to prove it, and they had to tell the researcher, in their face, that they had won all the time," Choshen-Hillel says. "That would seem weird and suspicious, like ‘How come you got all wins?’ Like they’re very likely to be a liar or a bad person," she says.
So they lie.
Real life lies
In another experiment in the same study involving a group of lawyers, they had to bill the client for a large number of hours, but decided to bill for less. And in a group students who were asked to self-report the grades they had gotten to their teacher, they, too, lied about their grades to make them seem a little worse than they really were, the researchers found.
In the real world, higher stakes or greater amounts of money may have more of an influence on people’s decisions, and they might be more likely to think selfishly, Choshen-Hillel says.
“It depends how costly it is to tell the truth: the trade they need to make,” she says. “It’s a very delicate balance between the social cost and the monetary cost.”
People would also be more likely to tell the truth if they were in a position where they know they will be believed — like of they are a person with a reputation of honesty, or competence.
It could also be the case that, in certain circumstances, people underreport out of modesty, or to avoid backlash from their peers. Choshen-Hillel and her team would like to further explore the specific characteristics of people who appear to lie to seem honest. What they find could tell us a lot about human nature, she says.
"While our findings may seem ironic or counterintuitive, I think most people will recognize a time in their lives when they were motivated to tell a lie to appear honest."