A Behavioural Perspective on Lying - Part 2: How Modern Life Boosts Dishonesty
In the cost of lying part 1, which you can find here, competing models from economics and psychology battled it out to explain lying behaviour. Comparing these models to our actual behaviour, the psychological model incorporating other-regarding preferences and self-image concerns won out, as in reality we tend to lie surprisingly little. Rather than dishonest behaviour being the result of dishonest people, generally it depends more on the environment surrounding decision-making. Everyone is prone to impulsively taking advantage of an opportunity to benefit through lying. So then, having answered why we lie, the key question then becomes: when do we lie and how can we stop it?
This question can be tackled by examining the specific conditions that boost dishonesty, including a lack of self-control, increased psychological distance, and dishonest workplace cultures. What becomes apparent from looking at the whole picture is that the demands of modern life have created the perfect storm for these conditions to flourish. By identifying instances in daily life where dishonest behaviour might be more prevalent, this offers targets for intervention to tackle this growing epidemic.
Condition 1: Self Control
Contrary to the typical view of honesty as our default behaviour, when we are in tempting situations where it is easy to lie, it has been argued that we actually default to dishonesty (Bereby-Myer & Shalvi 2015). For example, you receive more change than you were supposed to and the waiter has already left. Would you really call them back over to give the change back? In these situations, honesty requires self-control to resist temptation, as people must override their automatic urge to behave dishonestly for selfish gain.
Following on from this, this means that one’s capacity for self control influences the way people respond to opportunities for dishonesty. The strength model of self control argued that self control is a limited resource that gets depleted when you have to inhibit your urges. So when you make future decisions after having your self control depleted, you are then less likely to make the self controlled decision (Baumeister et al 1998). This extends to dishonest behaviour, as those who had their self-control depleted were then more likely to be dishonest in a later problem solving task (Gino et al 2011).
There is a clear link between lowered self control and sleep deprivation. As a result, a lack of sleep is associated with higher levels of unethical behaviour (Barnes et al 2011). Explanations for this have also been linked to the idea of ‘moral awareness’, which is people’s ability to determine that a situation contains moral content. One study found that individuals who slept the least were also the least morally aware and worst at recognising unethical behaviour in others as well. Translating this numerically, 2.1 hours less sleep was equivalent to a 10% reduction in moral awareness (Barnes et al 2015). This effect is present even over the course of one day, as Kouchaki and Smith highlighted that we are more unethical in the afternoon than the morning due to decreased self control and moral awareness.
The trend of reduced sleep has been worsened over time, with one survey estimating around two thirds of the UK population are sleep-deprived (Princess Cruises 2019). We juggle multiple demands on our time such as long work hours and family commitments, meaning many of us are short on sleep on any given day. Worryingly, this may impact on our ability to make moral decisions and may lead to an increase in unethical decisions and dishonesty.
Solutions to a Lack of Self Control:
One general intervention to improve self control would be to lower levels of sleep deprivation, which would have the added bonus of boosting people’s mental and physical health as well. This could be done by altering work schedules, tailoring stress reduction programmes, or even creating nap facilities which has already been embraced by companies such as Google (The Guardian). Another way to overcome people’s depletion of self-control would be to give them time to deliberate. When time is limited, this limits people’s cognitive resources and reduces their ability to exert self-control. One study found that when people were under time pressure they were more dishonest compared to people who were given time to deliberate (Shalvi et al 2012). So, introducing an extended cooldown period for decisions will give people this deliberation time. Doing this would have the dual benefit of delaying payoff from the dishonest act. As people make more impulsive decisions if the reward from them is immediate, this might also help to increase honesty.
Condition 2: Psychological Distance
The second condition shown to boost dishonesty is psychological distance, which refers to a cognitive separation between the self and other events. This can be widened in a number of ways such as digital interactions, cashless transactions, and anonymity. Starting with digital interactions, one study found that people would cheat 3 times more on average when interacting with a machine rather than a person (Marechal et al 2018). The pandemic has forced the majority of our interactions online and in many instances they may not be coming back offline. This may be creating opportunities for deception as when interacting with a machine we don’t have the same social image concerns that we would for a human, so are more willing to lie.
Also, digital interactions often preserve anonymity of users. The more anonymous a decision maker feels the easier it is for them to psychologically distance themselves from their behaviour (Zhong et al 2010). When online, we don’t feel connected to what we are doing and have less of a chance of being caught, so find it easier to lie.
Finally, transactions are now moving away from tangible representations of money towards digital ones. Although convenient, this creates psychological distance between the act of dishonesty and the reward. One study demonstrated that this increased dishonesty through an experiment where they paid participants either in money directly, or in tokens that were then exchanged for money. They found participants were twice as likely to cheat and ask for a higher number when they were requesting tokens as opposed to money directly (Mazar et al 2008). So, this suggested that people were able to justify their dishonesty due to the psychological distance created by cheating to get more tokens instead of cheating to get more money directly. Applying this to modern life, we are moving towards a cashless society which may have implications for dishonest behaviour. People may find it easier to cheat and overestimate when transactions are digital and no money is exchanged, or if stock options and shares are used instead of money.
Solutions to Psychological Distance:
Psychological distance in both the public and private sector is widening quickly due to digitalisation and looks unlikely to slow down. Companies must be aware that this may have implications such as increased levels of attempted fraud and other dishonest behaviour. It will require interventions rooted in behavioural science to mitigate this risk. For example, psychological distance can be minimised by having users require accounts with names and profile photos attached. During interactions, referencing customers by name and getting them to verify the truthfulness of their answers prior to filling them in may help them take individual responsibility for their actions and reduce dishonesty (Jacobsen et al 2017). Going further, it has been shown that the presence of a mirror induces self-awareness and forces people to look at themselves, which could be used in interactions where humans aren’t present, such as ATMs or online with a camera image (Vincent et al 2013).
Condition 3: Culture & Social Norms
For dishonest behaviour to impose a strong psychological cost on liars requires a strong internalised social norm against lying, which is created by the culture one is in. As mentioned in part 1, there is substantial variation in lying depending on the country, which may be partially due to these differences in norms. But, more specific than country-wide variation is cultures within industries. The seemingly constant cycle of unethical scandals in the financial sector suggests there is a norm of dishonesty. If this norm continues, the financial sector may struggle as it relies on customers having confidence and trust in them.
One study investigated this by first priming people’s occupations and then having them report their number of heads in a coin flip game. People were compensated according to this number, meaning there was an incentive to lie and report a higher number. They found employees in the banking sector who were reminded of their professional identity behaved more dishonestly than ones from other industries. More worryingly as it can’t be explained by self-selection into the industry, they also behaved more dishonestly than banking employees who weren’t reminded of their occupation (Cohn et al 2014). This suggested the simple act of thinking of themselves as bankers led to more dishonest behaviour, providing support for the hypothesis that cultural norms within the banking industry directly contributes to dishonest behaviour.
The norm can be attributed to a problematic business culture favouring profit above all else. This likely created a self-fulfilling norm as well, since when we see the unethical behaviour of others go unpunished and even rewarded, we change our assessment of the likelihood of being caught cheating as well as our understanding of the social norms related to dishonesty (Gino et al 2009a). To quantify this, one study suggested that the addition of one cheater to a group ‘creates’ roughly 3 new cheaters (Carrell et al 2008). Therefore, the issue of dishonest behaviour within certain workplaces is only likely to grow over time without any intervention.
Solutions to Social Norms:
Changing the social norms surrounding dishonesty is a difficult task as once norms are in place they are relatively resistant to change. These norms would need to be internalised by individuals so that the choice to lie came with greater psychological costs. Most of us inherently have these personal morals or ethics but may not have moral awareness when we are making decisions. To fix this, explicit moral cues can be used to put people into a moral mindset before decision-making. This could be as simple as telling people ‘do not be a cheater’ before they make their decision. One study showed this reduced cheating behaviour, suggesting it worked through an explicit reference as to how cheating would affect people’s identity, as people who chose to cheat wouldn’t just be cheating, but they would become a cheater (Bryan et al 2013).
Overall, since the majority of dishonest behaviour appears to be a product of the environment, the issue of dishonest behaviour seemingly has a relatively straightforward solution: change the environment. Identifying situations where there is an easy opportunity to be dishonest means we can target these for intervention and monitoring. Although you could argue that we as a society are more sleep-deprived, morally bankrupt, and psychologically distant than ever, these are things that we can change. The first step is to bring awareness to them, and then it is up to governments and corporations to implement these low cost and easy changes from the top-down. As the cost of dishonesty to society builds up collectively over many small lies, so to can the solution be built on numerous small but effective changes.
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