We all lie at some point in our lives and even to ourselves, but some do it to a great enough degree that they become accustomed to making a pile of lies to cover up a lie. Some would justify it with their good intentions and call it “white lies” when discovered. A new study revealed that concerns about appearing honest may outweigh the desire to be honest and cause people to lie.
People Lie to Appear Honest
A team of researchers from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the University of California, Los Angeles said that when people got extremely favorable outcomes or performed extremely well at a task, they start to believe that lying will hurt them. Thus, they think that they have the right to lie or would prefer to lie to just to appear honest.
60- and 90-Hour Group
Published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, the authors used a sample of 115 lawyers in Israel. These participants were asked to imagine a scene where they told their clients that their legal project would take about 60 to 90 billable hours. Half of the participants were told by the researchers that they used the full 90 hours while others were told that they only spent 60 hours on the case. When they were asked of the number of hours they would likely bill their client for the project, nearly 18% of those in the 90-hour group answered that they will bill less. The average answer of the lawyers was 88 billable hours. When they were asked for the reason, the frequent answer was that they did not want to appear like they were lying just to earn more money.
In the 60-hour group, they had an average of 62.5 billable hours with 17% of them lying just to inflate their work hours. Since the researchers think that it is also possible that the participants lied about the hours they worked on the case or project just to look more competent for the job, such as spending fewer hours meaning they are more adept in their work, the authors changed the scenarios. This time, they made sure that lying would have no association with their competence. Their second experiment was among college students.
An Experiment Among College Students
In their second experiment, they had the students imagine a situation wherein their teaching assistant would have no access to their grades. This means that they could self-report their grades to the TA on various assignments. They were also assigned to one or two teams and they were told either they got average or excellent grades on the board.
When asked how they would self-report to the teaching assistant, those in the extreme-grade team underreported their scores although it would hurt them. On the other hand, people in the average group did not significantly change their self-reported grades. People in the extreme-grade group shared that they would possibly underreport their grades because their TA may think that they took advantage of the opportunity to key in their grades. After all, the TA was not looking. It may appear “too good to be true.” Indeed, the extreme-grade group was right.
A subsequent experiment focused on how people would think of those who obtained extremely good grades or scores. Their perception was not that great. Lead researcher Shoham Choshen-Hillel, who is also a senior lecturer at the School of Business Administration and the Center for the Study of Rationality at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said that many people care about how they will be judged by other people or about their reputation. The concern to appear honest may outweigh the desire to be honest, thus leading to lying.
There is also another phenomenon mentioned by the researchers and they refer to this as prosocial lying. It is the act of lying to benefit others or to preserve the relationship or the feelings of another person.
The team concluded that although their findings may be counterintuitive or ironic, most people have, at some point in their lives, been motivated to lie just to appear honest to others.
Reasons Why People Lie
Meanwhile, clinical psychologist David J. Ley, Ph.D. shared the common reasons why people lie even if they don’t need to. These are as follows:
1. The lie matters to them – The liar thinks that the matter is so critically important that they have to put such pressure or undeserved emphasis on themselves.
2. They don’t want to disappoint the other person – They want the other person to like and value them and be impressed with them.
3. It feels like giving up control to tell the truth – Often, they are lying to control a situation even if it is inconvenient to them.
4. It is not a lie to them – Studies have shown that our memory can be unreliable sometimes. Repetitive liars often feel so much pressure that their memory becomes unreliable. They may genuinely believe the moment as the truth as their memory is overwhelmed by current events, stress, and the desire to make the situation work.
5. They want the lie to be true - The liar may want the story so badly that their needs and desire overwhelm their innate instinct to be honest.
6. Lies get bigger and bigger – After telling one lie, it grows like a snowball. The liar will tell another lie to cover the first lie until it grows bigger. So, people lie because they don’t want to admit the single lie and be seen as a liar.
Ley was not a part of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and UCLA study.
Lying and Honesty: Statistics
Financial platform Credit Donkey surveyed more than 1,200 Americans and 27.7% of men admitted that they have lied about their accomplishments. More (24.1%) said they lied on their Facebook profile than women (16.6%) of women. Also, 21.7% of men said they have lied on their resume compared to the 16.3% of women and 42.1% of men have not told the truth about their financial well-being compared to 37.6% of women.
On the other hand, women (25.6%) are more likely to lie to their doctors compared to 17.4% of men who have done so. Women (43.6%) are also more likely to tell tall tales to their parents than men (37.4%).
Database company Statista also shared a 2018 survey of 50,138 respondents in Poland. Although the majority said their social media image is fairly true to their offline selves, there are still 11.6% who said that they are fully untruthful in social media.
Although the recent study focuses on lying to appear honest, it only applies applicable in situations when telling the truth becomes suspicious. However, if lying is used to avoid a certain problem, it is not a good solution because you may end up looking like someone who cannot be trusted.