Fingers crossed

Man crossing his fingers behind his back (© Bits and Splits -

WASHINGTON — Have you ever heard something untrue today but said, “I could see that happening one day”? A new study finds misinformation is more likely to spread when people believe there’s still some truth in the lies they hear.

A team in London found people are more willing to overlook someone like a politician or a job applicant stretching the truth if they think what they’re saying could become a fact in the future. Further, people are less likely to find that lie unethical if they believe its broader message.

“The rise in misinformation is a pressing societal problem, stoking political polarization and eroding trust in business and politics. Misinformation in part persists because some people believe it. But that’s only part of the story,” explains lead author Beth Anne Helgason, a doctoral student at the London Business School, in a media release. “Misinformation also persists because sometimes people know it is false but are still willing to excuse it.”

People can find ways of making lies more plausible

The team recruited 3,600 people to take part in six different experiments. In each study, people read a variety of statements, some that were completely false, and had to predict whether some of the statements could come true at a later date.

One experiment with 447 graduate students from 59 different countries taking a course at a business school had to imagine their friend lying on their resume about having a skill they don’t actually have. The researchers asked the participants to reflect and think about the lie becoming true (e.g., “Consider that if the same friend enrolls in a financial modeling course that the school offers in the summer, then he could develop experience with financial modeling”). Results showed people who believed their friend could develop the skill in the future were less likely to think of the lie as unethical.

Another experiment had 599 Americans reflect on six false political statements that ranged from conservative to liberal such as “Millions of people voted illegally in the last presidential election” and, “The average top CEO makes 500 times more than the average worker.” Fact-checkers labeled each statement as false, but the participants had to predict how each statement could become true in the future. The study finds one way is to reword the phrases into open-ended statements such as “The average top CEO will soon make 500 times more money than the average American worker if…”

Participants on both ends of the political spectrum who imagined how the false statements could eventually become true were less likely to rate the statement as unethical than those who did not. Additionally, people who shared the same political views as the false statement were more likely to find it less unethical.

Taking believable lies to social media

“Our findings are concerning, particularly given that we find that encouraging people to think carefully about the ethicality of statements was insufficient to reduce the effects of imagining a future where it might be true,” says study co-author Daniel Effron, PhD, a professor of organizational behavior at the London Business School. “This highlights the negative consequences of giving airtime to leaders in business and politics who spout falsehoods.”

People were also more likely to share misinformation on social media when they thought about how the statement could become reality in the future, but only if it sided with their political views.

“Our findings reveal how our capacity for imagination affects political disagreement and our willingness to excuse misinformation,” Helgason concludes. “Unlike claims about what is true, propositions about what might become true are impossible to fact-check. Thus, partisans who are certain that a lie will become true eventually may be difficult to convince otherwise.”

The study is published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

About Jocelyn Solis-Moreira

Jocelyn is a New York-based science journalist whose work has appeared in Discover Magazine, Health, and Live Science, among other publications. She holds a Master's of Science in Psychology with a concentration in behavioral neuroscience and a Bachelor's of Science in integrative neuroscience from Binghamton University. Jocelyn has reported on several medical and science topics ranging from coronavirus news to the latest findings in women's health.

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