Believe it or not, people lie in order to maintain a good, honest reputation – even if it hurts them to do so, or means they lose money.
At least, this is what a team of scientists are suggesting, with evidence to prove it.
To join in the game, picture this scenario: You drive frequently for work and can be compensated for up to 400 miles per month. You also know that the people you work with typically drive 280 to 320 miles each month.
This month, you drive exactly 400 miles. How much of that do you think you’d claim in your expense report? All 400, you say?
A team of scientists from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the University of Chicago and the University of California, Los Angeles asked this exact question to 100 adults in the US in a study published Thursday in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. The researchers found that 12% of respondents underreported the distance they drove, giving an average answer of 384 miles.
The team also asked 100 separate adults in the US what they would report if they’d driven 300 miles, and they all told the truth. (Well, almost all of them, as their average answer was 301.)
So people in the first group lied about their mileage, even though they would lose money they were owed. The researchers believe this was to come across as honest, with the assumption being that others would be suspicious of a high expense claim.
“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,” explains Shoham Choshen-Hillel, senior lecturer at the School of Business Administration and Center for the Study of Rationality at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“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.”
The researchers tested multiple scenarios, including lawyers claiming billable hours and students self-reporting gambling wins in exchange for money, and in each case similar outcomes were seen – people lied to come across as a better person.
Why do they do this? Choshen-Hillel believes its because people judge others negatively when they report extreme outcomes.
“People are so concerned they seem dishonest that they would behave dishonest to keep their reputation clean,” she told CNN.
There are two main types of lie, Choshen-Hillel explains: Selfish and prosocial. The first, as you may predict, is for selfish gain, such as cheating an insurer with a false claim or reporting less income in order to pay less tax. The second involves lying to help others or not offend others, for example telling a friend who looks like they got dressed in the dark that they look great.
But now Choshen-Hillel and her team are suggesting there is this third type of lying – lying to keep up appearances, or to maintain a good reputation. They believe this mentality as a whole affects multiple behaviors in everyday life.
“The findings seem intuitive and believable,” says Tali Sharot, professor of cognitive neuroscience in the department of Experimental Psychology at University College London, who was not involved in the research. “One of the main motivations for lying is to increase our worth in the eyes of others. As people view honesty [as] a desirable feature, it seems highly likely that people will lie to seem honest in the eyes of others just as they will lie to seem successful, loving, hard-working, etc.”
The Jerusalem team acknowledge, however, that there will be scenarios where this isn’t the case, for example when the stakes are very high, such as extreme financial loss from lying in this way. But, Chosen-Hillel says, “I think most people will recognize a time in their lives when they were motivated to tell a lie to appear honest.”