- There is a pervasive belief that scarcity leads people to lie for their own benefit.
- Research suggests that scarcity does not increase people's tendency to lie.
- The popular belief does not match actual behavior.
A common part of social welfare programs is the use of payments to help people in need pay for basic necessities like food, clothing, and shelter. Sometimes, the payments come in the form of cash payments, and at other times they involve resources like electronic benefit cards that can be used only for particular items.
An often-expressed concern about these programs is that the funds will be misused or that people will claim benefits they do not deserve. One reason why programs might use electronic benefit cards rather than cash is so that the program can monitor and control how the resources are spent.
Implicit in this focus is the assumption that people in need will lie if they can in order to get additional resources to alleviate their need. Indeed, there is a strong chance that you believe that the more that someone is experiencing scarcity, the more likely they will be to lie in a way that is self-serving.
In fact, a paper in a 2023 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General by Lau Lillehold, Karoline Scigala, and Ingo Zettler demonstrated that a sample of over 650 Danish adults was asked whether people who live in poorer countries were more or less willing to lie than those in richer countries in order to gain a financial benefit. The results suggest that almost everyone believes that this kind of scarcity makes people more willing to lie to get a benefit.
Is that actually the case?
The same paper explored that question in several ways. In some studies, participants in an online study performed at home played a word game that typically requires about 16 guesses to complete. Participants were told they had either 12 guesses (not likely enough to win) or 18 guesses (probably enough to win). They would receive a bonus payment for winning the game.
Then, participants were told to guess a number between 1 and 8 and write it down. They were then shown a randomly generated number between 1 and 8. They were told that if they were correct, they could have 6 extra guesses. Because this was being done online, there was no way for the experimenters to know whether a particular participant told the truth or lied. On average, though, participants should have correctly guessed the number about 1 in 8 times. In fact, participants did tend to lie and accept extra guesses they did not deserve. Interestingly, though, they did this at the same rate regardless of whether they already had too few or a sufficient number of guesses to win.
The researchers replicated the finding a few times with different tasks and with different ways of manipulating whether participants felt like they were in a position of scarcity or abundance. They also verified that the manipulations of scarcity led participants to feel that the resources they had were scarce.
In a final study, the researchers analyzed data from studies of self-serving lying behavior done in different countries that differ in their overall poverty rate. The results suggest that there was no difference in people’s overall tendency to claim resources they did not deserve depending on the overall wealth of people in their country.
Although there are likely to be many more studies needed, this pattern of findings is interesting. The researchers obtained no direct evidence that making people feel as though resources were scarce increased their tendency to lie in a way that would increase the resources available to them. Yet, people strongly believe that scarcity will increase the tendency to lie in such a way.
The findings suggest that the concerns people have may be misplaced. Simply being in a mindset of scarcity does not increase people’s tendency to be dishonest. It is not that people don’t lie when they are experiencing scarcity, they just don’t do so more often than when they are in a situation of abundance.
Lilleholt, L. Scigala, K.A. Zettler, I. (2023). Does resource scarcity increase self-serving dishonesty? Most people wrongly believe so. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 152(7), 1897-2906.