Hoodwinking people for extra coin in your pocket can lead to guilt, unhappiness

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. — Con artists and cunning salespeople may seem proud of themselves, at least in film, when hoodwinking someone, but they might be causing unrealized mental health self-harm. New research from Rutgers University reveals deception during financial negotiations will often leave people feeling guilty and unhappy — even if it did score a few extra bucks.

Study author Alex Van Zant, PhD, and his colleagues, set out to determine if lying (and getting away with it) made liars more or less happy with the outcome of a negotiation.

“Although many people assume that deception elicits feelings of guilt, prior research found that getting away with unethical behavior leaves people feeling more satisfied with themselves,” Van Zant says in a statement. “But that research had primarily focused on private unethical behavior, like cheating on exams or taxes. It was unclear whether those findings might extend to telling a lie to someone whom the lie hurts directly, like a negotiation counterpart.”

To investigate if people who lie to others end up feeling “deceiver’s guilt” or a “deceiver’s thrill,” study authors brought together a group of 982 study subjects and divided them into 491 pairs of sellers and buyers. Then, each had to negotiate the sale of a used laptop worth just under $5,000. For the dishonesty condition, the sellers could dissemble – they were told that the laptop had a broken graphics card but the buyer didn’t know that and wouldn’t find out. Meanwhile, for the control condition, buyers knew the truth about the broken graphics card and the sellers knew that they knew.

Both sellers and buyers were offered an incentive to get the best deal possible. Sellers would receive a small cash payment for every $250 above $3,750 they won in the negotiation over the sale price. Buyers, on the other hand, were offered a cash incentive for every $250 under $3,750 that they paid for the laptop.

After negotiations ended and buyers and sellers had agreed on prices, sellers answered further questions regarding how they felt about the deal: (e.g., “I am satisfied with my outcome in this negotiation” and “This negotiation made me feel more competent as a negotiator,”) whether they felt guilty, and their general level of positive or negative affect at that particular moment.

All in all, that led to the discovery that 74 percent of sellers who had the chance to lie did in fact choose deception. Importantly, those who lied reported feeling less satisfied with the negotiation, more guilt, and less satisfaction in general compared to sellers placed in the control condition who didn’t even have a chance to lie. Moreover, sellers who could have lied but chose honesty were more satisfied than even sellers in the control condition.

Liar, liar — pride on fire?

Additionally, study authors were interested in whether having a greater or lesser incentive to lie would affect sellers’ feelings after the fact. To research this, half the pairs were given a cash incentive of $1.25 for every $250 above $3750, while for the other half, the incentive was much less: 10 cents per $250. Interestingly, subjects who lied for more money ended up feeling even guiltier than those who lied for a smaller reward.

A follow up experiment was also conducted, which led the research team to conclude that sellers who lied to their buyers were less likely to want to negotiate with that same person again, instead opting for a new partner if offered a choice.

These findings held up even after accounting for an individual’s personal sense of morality and ethical standards. People who described themselves as highly empathic with strong beliefs regarding fairness, justice, etc were just as likely as those who rated those characteristics as less important to them to feel guilty after lying.

“Scholars have long known the risks of detected dishonesty,” Van Zant explains. “Our investigation breaks new ground by showing how even undetected dishonesty harms negotiators. It leads negotiators to feel guilty, undermines their satisfaction, and reduces their interest in continuing a relationship with counterparts. Considering dishonesty’s psychological and relational costs, living with the costs of dishonesty might be psychologically more challenging than forgoing its benefits.”

Moving forward, future research should look at whether these results would remain consistent across different types of lies, Van Zant says.

“Our studies focused on lies that involve either misrepresenting or concealing information for personal gain. But sometimes people might lie about their emotions, for example strategically exaggerating anger to intimidate a negotiation counterpart,” he concludes. “Other times, they might even tell prosocial lies to benefit a counterpart. Some lies are likely to be easier for negotiators to rationalize than others. Perhaps these lies would not elicit nearly as much guilt as the lies we examined in our studies.”

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