Why we should teach people how to lie

In some situations, it’s better to be dishonest.

Credit: Matt Chase

Chana R. Schoenberger | Nov 28, 2017

Could you handle being honest—totally, brutally truthful, without even a well-intentioned falsehood to smooth over a social situation—for three days? Most people don’t think they could, at least not without ruining their family, social, and work lives. Fibs, white lies, and half-truths (along with, perhaps, more egregious whoppers) are such an important part of our interpersonal tool kit that going without them seems next to impossible.

But Chicago Booth’s Emma Levine, along with Carnegie Mellon’s Taya R. Cohen, asked exactly that of a group of research subjects and came away with a surprising conclusion: it’s not as bad as it sounds.

The researchers asked some participants to be completely honest in every interaction, with every person in their lives, for three days, while other participants were asked simply to be kind or conscious of their words. The participants predicted that being forced into honesty would make them unhappier than if they had to be kind or just aware of what they were saying to others. They anticipated frayed relationships as a result of abandoning the lies they typically use to cover up awkward or uncomfortable situations. But being honest didn’t torpedo subjects’ friendships, family connections, or jobs. 

“The experience of being honest is far more pleasurable, leads to greater levels of social connection, and does less relational harm than individuals expect,” Levine and Cohen write. 

The study is part of a movement within behavioral science to determine how important honesty is to human interactions. As researchers explore the spectrum of ethics from truth telling to lying, we come closer to understanding why we do, or don’t, tell one another the truth, and what this means for our society. 

There are, after all, documented social benefits to being dishonest. People often lie in the service of being kind; when kindness and honesty are at odds, the former often wins, because “we trust people who are kind,” says University of Pennsylvania’s Maurice Schweitzer, who was Levine’s dissertation advisor. We have a tendency to be more forthcoming to kinder people, particularly friends and colleagues. 

But purpose matters, of course: those who transparently lie simply to make themselves look good don’t enjoy the same social benefits. The truth is, we care more about others’ good intentions than their honesty. 

Lying in the workplace

As in social contexts, lying can have positive or negative effects in the business world. When evaluating the acceptability of lying, people often consider two things: the immediate emotional harm that telling the truth could cause, and the potential long-term value it could create. In most cases, people believe you should tell the truth. But if the truth causes emotional harm and cannot create long-term value, many people endorse lying. 

For instance, imagine that a colleague is about to make a big presentation and asks for your opinion on his suit, which you believe is quite ugly. People are much more likely to believe it is acceptable to lie to the colleague and tell him he looks fine if he is already wearing the suit and has nothing else to change into. But if the colleague asks your opinion the day before the presentation, when there’s time for him to wear a different outfit, most people would say you should tell him how you really feel about his clothes. What matters is “the extent to which feedback or any truthful statement actually provides instrumental value,” Levine says. 

Schweitzer says that to keep honest feedback from overwhelming staff, managers should focus on specific business-related issues that need work and skip issues that the person can’t control. 

Though it’s possible to be honest without being fully transparent, the same principle of practicality can be applied to decisions about transparency: in some cases, transparency for its own sake could be counterproductive. For instance, calls for full transparency on pay within an organization are “nonsense; it will make people miserable,” Schweitzer says. Sharing salary figures could rattle a company’s social dynamics. Some employees are solid performers, but “when they learn that others are being paid more, they become miserable, sulky, and less productive,” he says. Though pay transparency may be motivational for some people, and can help combat discrimination, it could also be disruptive for many teams.  

Is silence golden?

In another study, Levine looks at whether it’s better to say nothing or to lie in a situation where lying provides comfort and hope, and the truth would be hurtful. Her research finds that while the communicator—the person making the choice about lying—often thinks the best thing to do is to say nothing, thus sparing oneself the guilt of lying, the target prefers to hear the lie.

“In certain cases, such as the ill-fitting attire, [the target] might walk around feeling anxious if he realizes that you are not commenting on the suit,” she says. 

It’s a complicated question. In health-care situations, for instance, both doctors and patients think honesty is best. If you have cancer, most people agree that your doctor should tell you this scary news gently but frankly. 

But because hope is important to their mental state as they fight the disease, patients sometimes prefer that their doctor gives them hope, rather than giving them no information at all. For example, a patient might find comfort in her doctor telling her that she has a chance to beat the cancer, even if, medically speaking, she doesn’t. Avoiding the topic doesn’t work in this situation, because a lack of a prognosis is disconcerting to the patient. 

“False hope at least provides hope, while omission doesn’t provide any emotional benefit,” Levine says. Though an uncompromising policy of truth may be less problematic than it sounds for most people, such as those in Levine’s three-days-of-honesty experiment, well-intentioned deception still has its value. 

Frankly speaking

The tension between kindness and honesty can be seen in the language patterns that we use. English speakers regularly preface cutting remarks with “frankly” or the more slangy “not gonna lie”; the concept has even been abbreviated, for social media purposes, to “tbh,” short for “to be honest.” 

“It’s just a linguistic marker people use to say, ‘Don’t blame me for what I’m about to say,’” says Levine. Such a phrase is meant to absolve the speaker, giving her a moral out. 

In a 2014 paper, a trio of researchers—Emory’s Ryan Hamilton, University of Minnesota’s Kathleen D. Vohs, and Chicago Booth’s Ann L. McGill—looked at the language of honesty in online customer reviews. In a series of five experiments, they find that reviews with “dispreferred markers”—phrases such as “I’ll be honest,” “God bless it,” “Don’t get me wrong,” or “Bless its heart,” which indicate reviewers’ desire to offset negative information—were considered more believable. Participants felt that reviewers who included these phrases in their comments were more likable than those who didn’t. When a review used this language, participants were also more likely to pay more for the product being reviewed and to be more satisfied with it, the researchers find. 

“More than homey sayings, dispreferred markers act as a social lubricant, allowing an otherwise sticky interaction (the communication of negative, and therefore potentially threatening, information) to operate smoothly,” they write. 

Cultural norms can complicate this picture. In Japan, for instance, lying is common, Schweitzer says, because the culture places a premium on avoiding conflict, particularly avoiding saying “no.” Japanese language patterns contain ritual phrases that are polite to repeat in conversation whether or not they are true, Schweitzer says. 

Everybody lies

What research cumulatively shows is a disconnect between our official moral view of honesty and what people actually do and how it makes them feel. And needless to say, this ambiguity doesn’t just manifest itself when people are motivated by good intentions. 

In the corporate world, it takes the form of widespread ethics scandals, such as 2016’s Wells Fargo imbroglio, which resulted in the US Consumer Financial Protection Bureau fining the bank $100 million for “the widespread illegal practice of secretly opening unauthorized deposit and credit card accounts.” A year earlier, the US Environmental Protection Agency accused German automaker Volkswagen of installing software on clean-diesel cars to help them cheat on emissions tests. Cases of ethical misconduct span industries and decades. 

But why? The conventional explanation is that dishonesty and its attendant problems, such as corruption, can be traced to individual bad actors, and that companies have little sway: the best they can do is to root
out these people by careful screening, hiring, monitoring, and firing. 

A body of experimental work on dishonesty and ethics demonstrates that this narrative is incomplete. Some people lack morals entirely, but small acts of immorality form a more pervasive problem. 

Research has shown that crossing ethical lines to help others is often viewed in more of a neutral light, as is cheating that involves creativity.

“What the research my colleagues and I conducted shows is that all of us, no matter how much we care about honesty, tend to behave unethically when faced with an opportunity to cheat,” Harvard’s Francesca Gino says. Pretty much everyone cheats, as long as they can justify or rationalize their behavior at the time. 

That’s why studying dishonesty quickly turns into a question of how to remind people that their morals are important to them. 

“It is more about making sure that we are aware of the forces that lead us astray when it comes to ethics and figuring out ways we can remind ourselves that morality is something we care about,” Gino says. 

In a 2012 study, Gino and her collaborators worked with an auto-insurance company to see how honest customers were in reporting the mileage from their car’s odometer, a standard part of the insurance process that helps determine premiums. Higher reported mileage means a customer’s premium is more likely to rise. Half of the customers were given the company’s usual form, which asked them to sign the following statement that appeared at the bottom: “I promise that the information I am providing is true.” The other half filled out a revised version of the form, in which this statement was located at the top.

Among those who signed the pledge at the top of the page—before filling out their odometer readings—the average reported mileage was more than 2,400 miles higher.

“Our follow-up research demonstrated that signing at the top of the form (before reporting information that could be inflated) increased the salience of ethical standards by highlighting people’s self-identity and improving their ethicality, so the disparity in average mileage suggests a difference in reporting ethics rather than in driving habits,” Gino says. The behavioral “nudge” of asking participants to make an initial promise to be honest seemed to work by reminding them of their own morals. 

Some situations do allow for dishonest actions to be seen as “less morally problematic,” Gino says. For instance, research has shown that crossing ethical lines to help others is often viewed in more of a neutral light, as is cheating that involves creativity, she says. 

How pervasive is dishonesty? Duke’s Dan Ariely examined that question in his 2013 book, The Honest Truth about Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves. Ariely, a behavioral economist, also set up a video booth, the “Truthbox,” to capture ordinary people talking about their own dishonesty, from fibs to whoppers. Posted on YouTube, the videos reveal people who use lies as excuses, or to make things easier in social situations. One woman explains that she is chronically late and always blames her tardiness on train trouble or other transparent fictions. She muses that she assumes her friends know she’s lying, because everyone knows that she’s always late. 

Another woman explains how she tells people her father died when she was young, but omits that he was abusive. “It doesn’t feel safe for me to tell people that level of truth about something that tragic, so I filter it,” she says. 

Her story is an illustration of our complicated relationship with lying. Our moral code tells us that lying is wrong, yet we intuitively act in ways that demonstrate how lying is often the right thing to do. “My broad claim would be that as managers, as teachers, as parents, we should teach our employees, students, and children when and how to lie,” Schweitzer says. Instead, we send a mixed message, insisting that one should never lie and at the same time rewarding some lies. Children are admonished for dishonesty in one breath and, in the next, encouraged to tell Grandma how much they like the new sweater she bought them. Rather than condemning lying altogether, Schweitzer suggests, we should move to a set of ethics based on what we understand about behavioral science. 

“Let’s give people guidance, because we can identify broader rules here,” he says.