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Would You Lie to Protect Your Relationship?

New research shows who’s most likely to cover up a partner’s dishonest behavior.

Key points

  • People may protect someone who lies for two reasons: fear that the liar will be punished or a bribe to remain silent.
  • Research on unethical loyalty shows how those high on honesty and humility scales resist becoming entangled in a lie.
  • Preserving your integrity is often the best way to preserve your relationship.

All close relationships involve the understanding that partners will try to protect each other. However, what happens when your closest partner engages in behavior that you find to be unethical?

Perhaps your partner comes home with a story that you find disturbing, reflecting poorly on your partner’s moral judgment. A merchant charged your partner a considerably lower amount than the price tag on a high-end toaster oven. Rather than bring this to the merchant’s attention, your partner paid the lower amount and quickly left. You’re uncomfortable because you feel that this behavior was morally questionable. In fact, you’d rather not use the appliance at all because it seems tainted with this misdeed.

Moving outside the realm of your relationship, it doesn’t take much thought to realize that people cover up unethical behavior all the time, given the media coverage of instances of bribery, fraud, and corruption. As noted by University of Koblenz-Landau’s Isabel Thielmann and colleagues (2021), “such instances regularly involve individuals beyond those committing the initial unethical act, namely others who keep silent or lie to cover up the original transgression.”

The German authors cite previous research indicating that “the route to corruption leads over a steep cliff rather than a slippery slope,” meaning that you don’t just ease your way into corruption but that corruption can occur with one consequential decision. What leads to this moral failing?

Why People Lie to Cover Up Someone Else’s Transgression

There are, Thielmann et al. propose, two possible reasons that people would make the decision to protect a liar. One is based on a desire to ensure that the individual doesn’t get in some official kind of trouble, such as being charged with a crime. This “prosocial” motivation might be what’s involved when you don’t report on your partner’s transgression with the toaster.

The second reason to cover up someone else’s immoral behavior is that you’ve been offered a bribe, or a piece of the profit. It’s unlikely that your partner will bribe you to keep you from reporting the incident, so bribing would be more probable when the transgressor is some other type of associate or even someone you don’t know very well. In either case, you are making an active decision to let the incident go unreported, making you complicit in the act.

However, some people won’t lie to cover up a transgression no matter how much they want to protect the other person or benefit themselves. According to the so-called “HEXACO” model of personality, these people would be high on the dimension of “honesty-humility.” If you were to score at the positive end of this scale, it’s likely you would insist that your partner go back to the merchant and confess the mistake.

Indeed, as you might point out, if your partner does this right away, it’s unlikely that any criminal action will be taken given that accepting the lower price is an “honest mistake.” That’s a bit of a cover-up, but it would at least keep your partner from being charged with theft.

A Test for Who Is Likely to Engage in a Loyalty Lie

The Koblenz-Landau authors designed a simulation that gave the 288 university participants in their sample the chance to show their true colors when given the chance to cover up someone else’s unethical behavior. In this simulation, participants were paired up as they played a die-rolling game that was rigged to put one participant (P2) into the position of potentially covering up the other’s (P1) deception.

Called the “Unethical Loyalty Game (ULG),” P1 rolls a die in a cup, is told to observe the number, memorize it, and put it back in the cup. The object of the game was to roll a certain number that would then qualify P1 for a monetary reward. P1 knew that P2 would check the truth status of P1’s response before the researchers provided the reward. Every P1 had the opportunity, in the ULG, to offer some of the reward (a payoff) to P2.

In this game, then, a “yes” response from P1 triggered a sequence of steps in which P1 could offer some of the reward to P2. It was then up to P2 to decide whether to tell the truth after having received what now turned out to be a bribe. At the end of the game, the researchers checked to see whether P1 had lied and, further, whether P2 was also lying.

Now that you understand the framework of the game, you can see how closely it approximates (though with experimental controls) the situation with your partner and the toaster. You know that your partner lied, and you have to choose to either go along with the lie or to pick up the phone yourself and correct the mistake.

You may be wondering how many people actually lied (P1) and how many went along with the lie (P2). The findings on the experimental outcome of the ULG showed that of the 88% who reported that “yes,” the die matched the target, 84% of them lied. When P1 was telling the truth, 85% of the P2’s accepted the offer. A similar percent (86%) accepted the offer when P1 was lying. As you can see, then, there was a considerable amount of deception involved in both P1 and P2’s behavior. Furthermore, P1’s who lied also offered larger bribes to P2’s. Indeed, if the bribe was large enough, P2 would confirm P1’s reported die roll whether or not P1 had lied.

What's the Role of Personality in Covering Up a Lie?

Turning now to the honesty-humility dimension and its role in a cover-up, the findings supported the prediction that those with a stronger moral backbone would resist the temptation of the bribe. When put in the situation of receiving a bribe to cover up a lie, people high in this quality were less likely to confirm P1’s deceptive response.

Putting the personalities of the two conspirators together in a prediction equation, the authors further reported that “the odds of maximizing joint welfare through mutual lying were considerably higher when two individuals low in Honesty–Humility interacted with each other (88%) than in case of two individuals high in Honesty–Humility (63%)”. It takes two, in other words, to avoid or at least reduce the tendency to cover up dishonest behavior with a lie.

What Should You Do When You’re Asked to Cover for Your Partner?

The findings suggest that it will take an all-out effort for you to follow an ethical pathway in your own behavior. Although it’s tempting to engage in what the authors refer to as “unethical loyalty,” you can dig down deep into the honesty that resides within your personality to avoid this moral trap. It may be too late for you to set things right with that toaster in the days after the incident, but this situation can present you with an opportunity to have a full-blown discussion with your partner about how to avoid these problems in the future.

Considering that the participants in the loyalty game didn't even know each other, but still were willing to engage in a cover-up, the stakes for a loyalty lie should be even higher with the person you care the most about in the world. You want to protect your partner and you also want to protect your relationship. If your partner uses the cover-up as a chance to test how much you care, it can place you in a difficult dilemma indeed.

To sum up, the decision to remain loyal to your partner may at times conflict with your desire to be honest. However, you can preserve both your relationship and your integrity once you understand how to avoid making decisions that can ultimately harm you both.

Facebook image: SUPERMAO/Shuterstock


Thielmann, I., Böhm, R., & Hilbig, B. E. (2021). Buying unethical loyalty: A behavioral paradigm and empirical test. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 12(3), 363–370. doi:10.1177/1948550620905218