In his fascinating article ‘Why We Lie’ Dan Ariely reports a kind of epiphany he had when his student told him the following story. The student had locked himself out of his house, and had to call a locksmith. It took the locksmith about one minute to pick the lock and open the door to the student’s house. The locksmith then explained that door locks will not keep people out of your house who really want to get in. They are useful only against those would-be intruders who check to see that the door is locked, and then move on. Ariely uses this anecdote as a springboard for his discussion of lying. We tend to think (at least according to Ariely) that there are people who lie, and then there is all the rest of us. But the truth is that nearly everyone routinely lies, and only their personal sense of conscience limits the lies they are willing to tell. He also reports results that show that people’s propensity for lying is not governed by simple cost/benefit analyses, but is slanted in certain odd directions.Ariely reports experiments that show that people are fundamentally driven by two opposing motivations. One is to get what they want, including even things that they do not strictly need (such as huge sums of money). The other is to be able to view themselves as honest.

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It is important to distinguish being honest and viewing oneself as honest. This is one reason why, as Ariely notes, simply being reminded that lying is wrong (in church, for example) will actually make people lie less. Which is strange, because it is not something that they will have forgotten.
In fact, the results that Ariely reports suggest that the frequency with which people lie is a function of two variables: (i) How often they are presented with an opportunity to get something they want by dishonest means; and (ii) How much lying, and more generally, dishonesty, they can engage in without feeling dishonest. Even professional thieves do not want to view themselves as dishonest. They are just better at lying to themselves than most of us are.

Lying is unnatural, in at least one clear sense. People almost never do it without a reason. And the reason that polygraphs, voice stress analyzers, and other devices are fairly reliable at detecting lying is that the body is repulsed by it. It does not want to do it. So two questions become paramount: (a) How often do people lie? And (b) What makes the difference between those who lie fairly regularly, and those who do not?

One study examined the diary entries of college students and also community members, and found that the students reported telling 2 lies a day, and the community remembers reported telling 1. Lies that were told tended to be self-centered, in the sense that the lie made them seem like better people than would have otherwise. Interestingly, it also found that self-centered lies were more likely to be told to men, and other-oriented lies were more likely to be told to women (DePaulo et. al. 1996). Virtually none of them, however, regarded the lies as any sort of serious offense, corroborating Ariely’s hypothesis that people will generally lie up to the point that they come to seem, in their own eyes, dishonest people.

The phenomenon of seeming to oneself to be dishonest is related to what is called ‘ethical dissonance’ (Ayal and Gino 2011). It has been found that people will go to such lengths to avoid considering themselves dishonest, that they create what are called ‘double-distancing mechanisms’. They overcompensate for their own failings in dishonesty (or morality more generally) by judging others more harshly than they judge themselves (Barkan et. al. 2012). A significant result of this sort of study is that it broadens the significance of the sort of phenomena that Ariely points to: It is not just lying, but immoral behavior generally, which seems to fall under many of the principles he discusses.

Another very interesting experiment secretly monitored subjects who were told to repeatedly roll dice and record the results. They were paid more for higher rolls. It is no surprise that people tended to lie. What was surprising is that several subjects lied about the outcome, but not to maximize their income. These subjects had rolled such high numbers with the dice that (even though they did not know they were being monitored) they did not want to seem dishonest or greedy. So they reported lower scores than they actually achieved (Rischbacher and Heusi 2008). This highlights one of the most salient results we have seen: Lying is a function not only of what people can gain, or get away with, but also about whether they can maintain their view of themselves as honest, good people. To the people in this experiment, maintaining such a view was more important than getting money they were actually entitled to.

Ariely is part of a group of scholars who have theorized about ‘the dishonesty of honest people’ which proposes that honesty is largely a function of how well people are able maintain the relevant sort of ‘self-concept’ (Mazar et. al. 2008). These researchers’ general idea is that there is a range of actions—from sort of wrong to not at all wrong—within which people do not really even ask themselves whether the given action is acceptable. But once they get outside that range (and deal with potential lies or other forms of dishonesty that would force them to confront the question) their propensity to lie goes down.

In summary, lying and dishonesty (as well, perhaps, as immoral behavior more generally) are more complex psychological phenomena that most of us realize. Whether or not someone lies depends surprisingly often not on whether they can get away with it, or even whether they stand to gain something from it—as upon how it makes them look to themselves.

  • Ariely, Dan. “Why we lie.” Wall Street Journal (2012): C1-2.
  • Ayal, Shahar, and Francesca Gino. “Honest rationales for dishonest behavior.” The Social Psychology of Morality: Exploring the Causes of Good and Evil. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association (2011).
  • Barkan, Rachel, et al. “The pot calling the kettle black: Distancing response to ethical dissonance.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 141.4 (2012): 757.
  • DePaulo, Bella M., et al. “Lying in everyday life.” Journal of personality and social psychology 70.5 (1996): 979.
  • Fischbacher, Urs, and Franziska Föllmi‐Heusi. “Lies in disguise—an experimental study on cheating.” Journal of the European Economic Association 11.3 (2013): 525-547.
  • Mazar, Nina, On Amir, and Dan Ariely. “More Ways to Cheat-Expanding the Scope of Dishonesty.” Journal of Marketing Research 45.6 (2008): 651-653.