The Dishonest Truth? Study Says People Lie To Appear More Honest

WASHINGTON — Have you ever felt guilty about a lucky break you received? Sometimes the truth seems so unbelievable people feel it might be better to keep it to themselves. One recent study says some people actually prefer to lie because of the fear that the truth will hurt their reputation.

The study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, looks at several experiments which test how people handle situations where they gain a financial advantage over others. Researchers say several people chose to lie about their good fortune because telling the truth could make them appear selfish or dishonest.

“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,” says lead researcher Shoham Choshen-Hillel, from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in a statement. “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.”

Lawyers & lies

Choshen-Hillel says many of the subjects who were tested actually cost themselves money rather than admit the real results of their situation.

In one experiment, 115 lawyers were told a case they worked on would take between 60 and 90 billable hours. Half of the lawyers were then told their case took 60 hours to complete. The other half were told they could bill the client for 90 hours of work. Researchers say 18 percent of the lawyers who were able to charge for 90 hours lied and reported fewer hours of work.

When asked why they chose to short-change themselves, lawyers admitted that they were worried the client would feel cheated and think the attorney lied about the bill. In that experiment, researchers also note that 17 percent of the 60-hour group inflated their hours so they could charge the client more.

Fibs for the sake of fairness

In a different study testing 149 Israeli college students, two groups were tested to see how they react to good fortune in a game of chance. The game awarded each student 15 cents for each correct dice roll or coin flip they predicted.

One group received completely random outcomes, but the other students were given tests that manipulated the results so they would win every single time. When it came time to report their “perfect score,” 24 percent of the students said they won fewer games than they actually did.

“Some participants overcame their aversion toward lying and the monetary costs involved just to appear honest to a single person who was conducting the experiment,” adds Choshen-Hillel.

Going the extra mile to appear honest

In the United States, an online experiment tested over 200 adults who were told a job was going to repay them for the miles they drove each month. Researchers told the volunteers the most they could report was 400 miles driven. They were also told most workers drove between 280 and 320 miles a month.

Half of the survey was told they drove 300 miles. That group was very honest about their numbers with a combined average of 301 miles reported. The other half of the survey was told they drove the maximum 400 miles. When they reported their numbers, 12 percent lied and said they drove less.

“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,” explains Choshen-Hillel.

Researchers believe these tests would likely have similar results in the real world, as people tend to value how they’re viewed by those around them. Choshen-Hillel added however, that there are situations where the money is so great or the stakes are so high that people would choose to tell the truth at the expense of appearing to be a liar.

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About the Author

Chris Melore

Chris Melore has been a writer, researcher, editor, and producer in the New York-area since 2006. He won a local Emmy award for his work in sports television in 2011.

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