Hide and Seek

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Original Sin: The Psychology of Dishonesty

Are lying and cheating instinctive or calculating?

Are lying and cheating instinctive or calculating?

To answer this question, Shaul Shalvi and his colleagues set up an experiment in which volunteers were told that they could earn ten shekels (about $2.50) for each pip of the numeral that they rolled on a die. The volunteers were asked to check the outcome of the roll, to roll the die twice more to satisfy themselves that it was not loaded, and then to report the outcome of the original roll on a computer terminal. Half the volunteers were given no time limit in which to do this, whereas the other half were given a time limit of just 20 seconds.

If the volunteers had been completely honest, the average reported roll would have been 3.5 or thereabouts. The volunteers with just 20 seconds in which to complete the task reported an average roll of 4.6, whereas the volunteers with an unlimited amount of time reported an average roll of just 3.9, an important and statistically significant difference.

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Although both groups lied, the group with more time for reflection lied considerably less. This finding was confirmed by a second, similar experiment in which volunteers were asked to roll the die just once and then to report the outcome. Half the volunteers were given no time limit, whereas the other half were given a time limit of just 8 seconds. The volunteers with the 8 second time limit reported an average roll of 4.4, compared to 3.4 for the volunteers with an unlimited amount of time. Note that, in this case, the volunteers with an unlimited amount of time actually told the truth.

These findings strongly suggest that lying and cheating are more instinctive than calculating: if people are given plenty of time to think over a problem, they are far more likely to come up with an honest answer. Or as the philosopher Kierkegaard put it,

"Far from idleness being the root of all evil, it is rather the only true good."

Neel Burton is author of The Meaning of MadnessThe Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help GuideHide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deceptionand other books.

Find Neel Burton on Twitter and Facebook 

Notes:

Shalvi S, Eldar O, & Bereby-Meyer Y (March 2012): Honesty requires time (and lack of justifications), Psychological Science.

Neel Burton, M.D., is a psychiatrist, philosopher, and writer who lives and teaches in Oxford, England.

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