Is lying the key to honesty?

Jerusalem: People may lie sometimes to appear honest if events that turned out in their favour seem too good to be true, according to a study. “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, even in situations where it will cost us money to lie,” said Shoham Choshen-Hillel, a senior lecturer at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel.

“Our findings suggest that when people obtain extremely favourable outcomes, they anticipate other people’s suspicious reactions, and prefer lying and appearing honest over telling the truth, and appearing as selfish liars,” Choshen-Hillel said.

The study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, found similar findings about lying to appear honest in a series of experiments conducted with lawyers, and college students in Israel, as well as online participants in the US and UK.

In one experiment with 115 lawyers in Israel, the participants were told to imagine a scenario where they told a client that a case would cost between 60 and 90 billable hours. The lawyer would be working in an office where the client wouldn’t know how many hours were truly spent on the case.

Half of the participants were told they had worked 60 hours on the case while the other half were told they worked 90 hours. Then they were asked how many hours they would bill the client. In the 60-hour group, the lawyers reported an average of 62.5 hours, with 17 per cent of the group lying to inflate their hours.

In the 90-hour group, the lawyers reported an average of 88 hours, with 18 per cent of the group lying to report fewer hours than they had actually worked. When asked for an explanation for the hours they billed, some lawyers in the 90-hour group said they worried that the client would think he had been cheated because the lawyer had lied about the number of billable hours.

There were similar findings in another online experiment with 544 participants in the UK. Choshen-Hillel believes the study findings would apply in the real world, but there could be situations where the amount of money or other high stakes would lead people to tell the truth even if they might appear dishonest.


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