- Though gender differences in deception are small, when it comes to selfish dishonesty, women never surpass men.
- New research shows that compared to women, men engage in more deception, especially when telling lies that promote self-interest.
- Gender differences in dishonesty may be related to emotion and self-regulation (e.g., level of competitiveness, guilt-proneness).
We value honesty (i.e. being truthful, sincere, straightforward) in political leaders, therapists, friends, family, and especially, our romantic partners. After all, honesty is a determinant of trustworthiness.
Research shows there are also gender differences in honesty.
A recent paper by Kennedy and Kray, published in Current Opinion in Psychology, suggests men are more selfishly dishonest than women.
Before discussing gender differences in dishonesty, let us talk about the causes and consequences of deception.
The causes and consequences of dishonesty
People try to deceive others frequently and for a variety of reasons: To get what they want, to save face, to avoid punishment, etc.
Because the accuracy rate of lie detection is nowhere close to 100 percent, even when using tried-and-true lie detection techniques, one cannot tell for sure if a person is lying or telling the truth.
But does that matter? It depends. Dishonesty can have both positive and negative consequences for those being lied to (e.g., the person’s parents, romantic partner, or employees) but also for the liar.
To illustrate, though certain forms of deception may help an upwardly mobile professional move up the socioeconomic scale, they can have negative physical and mental health consequences as well: Greater social disconnection and feelings of loneliness, raised blood pressure, increased heart rate, and higher cortisol reactivity.
Gender differences in dishonesty
The majority of previous meta-analyses have found women are more honest than men.
As for specific examples, research shows that firms with male Chief Financial Officers (CFOs) are more likely to engage in financial misreporting than firms with female CFOs. And men, compared to women, engage in more academic dishonesty.
Similar gender differences have been observed for self-deception:
Compared to women, men are more likely to deceive themselves, believing they are superior and deserving of special treatment. This is driven primarily by the exploitative/entitlement facet of narcissism, a facet associated with maladaptive and toxic behaviors such as emotional manipulation (e.g., gaslighting), aggression, harassment, and refusal to forgive.
What causes gender differences in dishonesty?
Gender differences in deception may be due to evolutionary and/or cultural factors.
Evolutionary explanations concern how useful dishonesty may have been in sexual and natural selection processes. Specifically, men who succeeded in misleading women (for the purposes of obtaining short-term sexual access) were more likely to pass on their genes.
Put differently, in ancient settings, deception was less costly and more rewarding for men than women.
As for cultural explanations, the most accepted accounts are related to social role theory, which proposes that the division of labor in society explains why men engage in more deceptive behavior.
Consistent with this theory, research indicates work experience often reduces differences in deception and unethical behavior. For example, the authors note, “among politicians and lawyers—professions where deception might be perceived to signal competence—men and women lie to similar degrees.”
Gender differences and self-regulation
Self-regulation refers to processes involved in monitoring and controlling one’s thoughts, emotions, and actions according to personal standards and goals.
So, what are some psychological differences between the genders related to self-regulation?
Men are more competitive than women, an inclination associated with a greater willingness to deceive. Indeed, a recent study found that inducing “either competitive or empathic feelings towards counterparts mitigate differences in sex differences in lying.”
Additionally, women tend to have stronger moral identities. And when they do not behave in ways that meet their personal standards, they are more likely to experience guilt and feel responsible for others’ negative outcomes.
Therefore, competitiveness, moral identity, and guilt-proneness affect the psychological interpretation of a situation and willingness to modify one’s behavior based on personal standards. So, these self-regulatory tendencies predict willingness to engage in and approval of deceptive or unethical behavior.
Though situational factors or habits can sometimes outweigh gender differences, women never surpass men when it comes to selfish dishonesty.
Simply put, men are more dishonest than women, particularly in competitive environments and situations where deception serves self-interest.
One way of explaining gender differences in honesty involves self-regulatory mechanisms: Generally speaking, women are less competitive, more guilt-prone, and have greater moral identity strength than men.