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How to Make a Liar Stop Lying

Fighting consequence attenuation with victim deservingness.

Key points

  • It doesn't require psychopathy to engage in dishonest behavior without feeling remorse or regret.
  • When people's lies are specific to certain types of cheating, new research suggests how to move them toward being more honest.
  • By imagining who a lie may hurt, a liar may be encouraged to find a way to moral high ground.

People who tell lies as part of their normal interactions with others may offer a variety of excuses to justify behaviors that they know, morally, are wrong. These lies may range from small bending of the truth to falsehoods that either serve to bring them financial gain or some other sort of advantage. Unless they are truly psychopathic, they must go through considerable mental finagling to retain a view of themselves as upright individuals.

You may have a friend who brags about having successfully exaggerated their work-from-home hours to impress their supervisor. Perhaps this individual also cheerfully gets back refunds from various merchants by returning used items just within the return window. In your interpersonal dealings, you’ve never had any problems with them, and their family life seems to be fine. Their dishonesty seems to be situation-specific, but it is still concerning. What if they decide to try to pull one over on you? Taking this one step further, how do you feel about being in league with someone whose reputation is less than squeaky clean?

Moral Self-Image and the Behavior of Lying

The problem of how people rationalize dishonest behavior can be viewed in terms of “moral self-image,” according to a new paper by the University of Sydney’s Demetris Christodoulou and colleagues (2022). This view of yourself as an upstanding person technically needs to be updated when your behavior doesn’t conform to this self-image. However, as Christodoulou et al. note, “In the trade-off between the benefits of honesty and the psychological costs associated with it, liars tend to apply a range of self-serving strategies to justify their misbehavior."

Prior research suggests that there is indeed a slippery slope from situation-specific lying to more generalized patterns of deception. With each lie, the individual neutralizes the behavior in order to reduce “ethical dissonance.” The moral cost of lying decreases and it becomes easier for the liar to keep lying without compunction.

Turning the Liar Into an Honest Person

The Christodoulou et al. study addressed insurance company fraud; specifically, deceptive behavior by smokers who, when they apply for a new policy, try to receive lower rates. When you apply for a new policy, your rate is determined by factors that statistically place you at greater risk for developing chronic diseases. Therefore, most smokers would be motivated to keep their unhealthy habit to themselves.

The situation involving insurance, or insurance underwriting, has what the authors call a “high degree of information asymmetry." Dishonesty is a “rational decision,” they argue, but to avoid “the psychological costs that can occur when people behave immorally,” most applicants engage in “economically irrational behavior” by telling the truth. However, not everyone seeks this moral high ground. For those who think they can get away with lying about their health habits, there's little to stop them.

To bring the liars into line and allow their moral self-images to override their desire for gain, the U. Sydney team developed a field experiment in which they manipulated the instructions provided to 2,500 applicants in the assessment phase of the underwriting process. The question this experiment addressed was whether applicants would change their self-reports of smoking in response to an instructional manipulation.

First, the authors tackled “Consequence Attenuation (CA),” or the tendency for applicants to see lying as having no negative impact. “Why should they care? They’re big enough to afford this,” might be that particular rationale. To overcome CA, the research team included instructions pointing out that dishonesty on the applicant’s part could increase the premiums of other consumers. Now, the smoker has to wrestle with the idea that their own lying could be hurting their economically irrational, but honest, peers.

The second reason that people lie to insurance companies, Christodoulou et al. maintain, is that people think of insurance companies as greedy and overpriced, and as caring more about their bottom line than about consumers. In the Victim Deservingness (VD) condition, callers received instructions highlighting the good work of the company which “is always trying to improve the lives of people in our community by helping the environment and caring for vulnerable people." How could you cheat a company with such good intentions and charitable actions?

Turning to the findings, the authors compared the “revision” rates across the two-step application process to see how many applicants would confess the truth about their smoking habits based on the instructional manipulation. The ordinary revision rate was 2.97 percent, but in the CA treatment, this rose to 3.77 percent, and in the VD condition, an even higher 4.35 percent rate. In other words, highlighting the “deservingness” of the victim resulted in a 46 percent increase over no specific instructions at all. As it turned out, only the VD manipulation produced a significant effect.

Converting the Liars in Your own Life

Before your friend's lying starts to spread over into your interactions, tinkering with their moral self-image may be what's called for. Conversely, if you’re the culprit, it may be your own sense of decency that needs a reboot. The Australian study suggests how you might start to accomplish both of these goals.

First, rather than viewing those at the receiving end of dishonesty as faceless and nameless, the liar needs a clear image of who is being harmed. The refund cheat needs to picture the worker at the other end who opens the now dysfunctional returned product.

In the situation involving deceit toward a supervisor, the effect of the deceptive behavior on them should be even more self-evident. Even beyond imagining the individuals who may suffer, the results from the VD manipulation suggest the value of reframing thoughts about the victims as part of an enterprise that is there to help others. Perhaps the liar is trying to sneak into a local museum without paying admission. Here, the correlation between the lie and the greater good of the organization is even clearer.

To sum up, restoring the sense of morality and decency to those who would try to game the system may be a challenge. However, the Christodoulou et al. study provides a pathway to greater honesty and fulfillment.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: GaudiLab/Shutterstock


Christodoulou, D., Samuell, D., Slonim, R., & Tausch, F. (2022). Counteracting dishonesty strategies: A field experiment in life insurance underwriting. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making. doi: 10.1002/bdm.2302.

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