When do we lie?

New research about the circumstances under which we allow ourselves to lie.

Pinocchio with coinsWe are exposed to lying as an act right from childhood. Whether it’s the nursery rhyme that ends with “Open your mouth…Ha Ha Ha”, or the boy who cried wolf, or the legendary Pinocchio, we see number of occasions of people lying.

But what makes us actually do it, even though we know it’s not appropriate?

Psychological scientists Shaul Shalvi of the University of Amsterdam and Ori Eldar and Yoella Bereby-Meyer of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev investigated the factors that influence dishonest behavior and their study will feature in forthcoming issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Previous research indicates that our first instinct is to serve our own self-interest. And research also shows that we are more likely to lie when we can justify such lies to ourself. Shalvi and colleagues have hypothesized that under time pressure we are more likely to lie when having to make a decision that could bring in monetary benefits. They also hypothesised that when we are not under time pressure we are unlikely to lie unless we find a way to rationalise our behaviour.

“According to our theory, people first act upon their self-serving instincts, and only with time do they consider what socially acceptable behaviour is,” says Shalvi. “When people act quickly, they may attempt to do all they can to secure a profit—including bending ethical rules and lying. Having more time to deliberate leads people to restrict the amount of lying and refrain from cheating.”

In the experiments that they conducted, they asked participants to roll the dice thrice. Participants had to report their 1st roll. If the number was high, more money would be paid to the participant. Many participants reported the highest of the three rolls as their first roll. This is because, the three rolls allowed allowed the participants to rationalise that they did roll that number, though it may not have been on their first roll. The researchers observed that the participants who had to answer within 20 seconds of the 3rd roll were more likely to lie than those who had to more time to answer.

The experiment was then repeated with just one roll of the dice. This time around, the participants who were under time pressure lied, while those without a time constraint did not.

Together, the two experiments suggest that, in general, people are more prone to lie when time is in short supply. When time isn’t a concern, people may only lie when they have their own justification for doing so.

One implication of the findings is that to increase the likelihood of honest behaviour in business or personal settings, it is important not push a person into a corner but rather to give him or her time. As Shalvi says, “People usually know it is wrong to lie, they just need time to do the right thing.”



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