Honesty is the best policy, or so the saying goes. But what if the truth seems less believable than a lie?
That’s the idea explored in a new study led by Dr. Shoham Choshen-Hillel at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s School of Business Administration and the Federmann Center for the Study of Rationality, along with Alex Shaw at the University of Chicago and Eugene Caruso at UCLA. The results were published in the latest edition of the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.
In one experiment, the researchers asked 115 lawyers in Israel to imagine that they gave a client a work estimate of 60 to 90 billable hours. Half of the participants were told that they actually worked 60 hours, while the other half were told they worked 90. The clients had no way to verify the number of hours worked. On average, 17 percent of the 60-hour group falsely inflated their hours. However, in the 90-hour group, 18 percent falsely underreported their hours. When pressed for an explanation, these lawyers said they were worried their clients would be suspicious of them and think they hadn’t really work all those hours on their case. So they quoted a lower number even though this meant they would lose money.
“Many people care about their reputation and how they will be perceived by others. Sometimes our desire to appear honest outweighs actually being honest, even if it costs us,” observed Choshen-Hillel.
The study found similar findings in a series of experiments and interactive games. In one experiment, 201 adults from the United States were told to imagine a scenario where they worked for a large company with a maximum monthly mileage compensation of 400 miles. Half of the participants were told they had driven 300 miles that month while the other half was told they had driven 400 miles. When the participants were asked to report their miles, the 300-mile group reported an average of 301 miles. However, participants in the 400-mile group, on average, underreported their mileage and only submitted 384 miles for reimbursement.
In a third experiment involving 149 Israeli college students, participants were told to flip a coin in private and then report their scores to a researcher. Each time the coin landed on “heads” they would receive 15 cents. However, the game was rigged for half of the students and their coin landed on “heads” eight times in a row. When it came time to report their results and collect their payment, 24 percent of these students underreported their wins, sprinkling in a few losses to avoid looking like cheaters, compared to 4 percent in the control group, for whom coin outcomes were random.
“Our findings suggest that when people obtain extremely favorable outcomes, they anticipate other people’s suspicious reactions and prefer to lie and appear honest rather than tell the truth and appear selfish or liars”, Choshen-Hillel shared
While these findings may seem counter-intuitive on the surface, “most people will recognize a time in their lives when they were motivated to tell a lie to appear honest,” Choshen-Hillel concluded.