The weird reason people lie so much, according to research

If you hate someone’s haircut/spouse/short film/essence, there’s an age-old solution that never fails. It’s called lying and it’s the best—so long as your heart’s in the right place.

Research has suggested that humans are especially dishonest in the instances when telling the truth will cause others to think meanly of us. 

New data published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology explores the most compelling arguments against transparency in a professional and social context. According to the researchers, people are often tempted to lie in an attempt to protect their perceived integrity. 

“Many people care greatly about their reputation and how they will be judged by others, and a concern about appearing honest may outweigh our desire to actually be honest,” explained lead researcher Shoham Choshen-Hillel, from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem to The American Psychological Association. “Our findings suggest that when people obtain extremely favorable outcomes, they anticipate other people’s suspicious reactions and prefer lying and appearing honest over telling the truth and appearing as selfish liars.”

Lying to influence reception  

The authors supported their hypothesis with three experiments.

In the first, 115 lawyers were recruited before being given a case that would take between 60 and 90 billable hours to complete.

Half of the lawyers were told that their case took 60 hours while the other half were told that they could bill their clients for 90 hours of work. 

Surprisingly, 18% of the lawyers who were able to charge for 90 hours opted to lie and report fewer hours of work. In other words, to avoid invoking suspicion in their hypothetical clients, these lawyers forfeited a higher wage. 

The second study replicated the results of the first with 149 college students.

 Two groups were tested to see how they reacted to good outcomes in a game of chance. 

The game gave each student 15 cents per dice roll or coin flip that was correctly predicted.

The control group was given random outcomes, while the experiment group was given tests that manipulated the results to ensure that they won every single time. When it came time to report their “perfect score,” 24% of the participants chose to fabricate their losses. 

“People try to avoid appearing dishonest. Although efforts to avoid appearing dishonest can often reduce lying, we argue that, at times, the desire to appear honest can actually lead people to lie. We hypothesize that people may lie to appear honest in cases where the truth is highly favorable to them, such that telling the truth might make them appear dishonest to others,” the authors write in the report.

The last study employed an online experiment with over 200 adults who were told a job was going to repay them for the miles they commuted each month to work. The participants were told most workers drove between 280 and 320 miles a month.

The authors additionally informed the volunteers that the most they could report were 400 miles. The control half of the study pool was told they drove 300 miles. This group was generally honest about their numbers with a combined median of approximately 301 miles reported.

However, the experiment half of the study pool was told that they drove the maximum 400 miles. Again, when these reported their numbers, 12% lied and said they drove less even though monetary compensation was at stake.

“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,” concluded  Choshen-Hillel.

CW Headley is a reporter for the Ladders and can be reached at cheadley@theladders.com