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People Can Use Honesty to Justify Selfishness

Recent research suggests that honesty is a virtue that is used strategically.

Key points

  • Honesty is a virtue that many people believe is important.
  • Yet research suggests that people are most likely to be honest when it serves their interests.
  • People often avoid learning information that would let them know their honesty hurt other people.
HaseebPhotography Free image via Pixabay
Source: HaseebPhotography Free image via Pixabay

Most people think of honesty as a virtue. All else being equal, we believe that we should choose to be honest with others. There are rare circumstances where dishonesty is necessary (like when planning a surprise party) or at least tolerated (such as saying you like a person’s new haircut when you aren’t crazy about it). But we generally expect that people should strive to be honest.

A paper in the January 2021 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Emma Levine and David Munguia Gomez suggests that people may use honesty selectively. In particular, they may be most likely to tell the truth when being honest supports a self-serving outcome.

In one study, participants played a game in which they got to determine the payoffs that would be given to themselves and to a partner. In a control condition, the standard option was that each player would get $0.25. A selfish option gave the participant $0.55 and their partner only $0.05. An altruistic option gave the participant only $0.05 and their partner $0.55. In this control condition, 5% of participants chose the altruistic option, and the rest of the participants were evenly split between choosing the standard option (with an equal payout) or the selfish option.

Here’s where honesty kicked in. There were two other conditions of the study that varied the rules. In these conditions, participants were told that the computer was going to choose a random number between 1 and 9. If the number was odd, they were eligible to get the selfish option. If the number was even, they were eligible to get the altruistic option.

The option they actually got would depend on what they chose to tell their partner. If they didn’t tell them anything about the number, then they would get the standard option that split the money equally between the players. If they told their partner that the number was odd, they would get the selfish option and if they told their partner that the number was even, they would get the altruistic option. Some participants were then told the computer had selected an odd number and some were told it had selected an even number.

This design is complicated, but it creates an interesting way to look at the influence of honesty. When participants were told that the number was odd, then telling their partner the truth would get them a bigger payout than withholding the information. Remember that in the control condition, about half the participants chose the larger payout that would harm their partner. When told that the computer had selected an odd number, nearly 75% chose to tell the truth and get the larger payout. That is, people used the opportunity to tell the truth to justify getting more money.

When participants were told the number was even, then they would have to lie to get the larger payout. Participants told the truth and gave their partner the larger payout about 18% of the time, and they lied and took the larger payout about 39% of the time. The remaining participants said nothing about the number at all and took the even split. This finding suggests that people were most honest when they stood to gain something from being honest, though a small number of people chose to be honest even when it hurt them.

The researchers replicated this finding several times across studies. They also added an interesting extension. In some studies, participants were told about the influence of telling the truth on their own payment, but were not given information about the influence it could have on their partner’s payment. Participants could either choose to find out the influence of the options on the other participant or not.

Participants who could tell the truth and get a larger payout chose not to find out what effect that would have on their partner’s payout. That is, rather than discovering that their honesty had hurt their partner, they preferred to make a selfish choice and protect themselves by not knowing the influence their choice had on someone else. This tendency to remain ignorant is called information avoidance .

These studies suggest that many people use the virtue of honesty selectively. They will justify favorable outcomes by telling the truth. They will also help to keep the illusion of favorable outcomes by remaining willfully ignorant of information that might let them know the harm they have caused others. Fewer people in these studies elected to tell the truth when it led to a less favorable outcome for themselves.


Levine, E. & Gomez, D.M. (2021). I'm just being honest: When and why honesty enables help versus harm. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 120(1), 33-56.