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A Theory of Lying and Dishonesty

Tripartite theory of lying points to when, why, and for whom lying is likely.

Key points

  • As a social species, we have strong motivations to behave prosocially, and honesty is a key element of prosociality.
  • The field needs a broad meta-theoretical perspective that ties all the work on honesty and dishonesty together.
  • A proposed theory posits that dishonesty occurs as a function of perceived utility of lying, external disutility risk, and internal disutility.

Why are some people dishonest while others choose to be earnest and forthright? Why does a typical person remain honest most of the time yet occasionally lie?

It turns out that what separates the honest from the dishonest boils down to three distinct variables. Once those three factors are understood, it becomes quite easy to predict when people will lie, cheat and steal and be sincere and behave with integrity.

As I have written in previous publications, it turns out that most people are honest most of the time. The typical person reports lying only a few times per week, and most of those lies tend to be small, inconsequential white lies.

As a social species, we have strong motivations to behave prosocially, and honesty is a key element of prosociality. However, people are not all equally prosocial. Some consistently behave selfishly, taking more than they give. Since antisocial selfish behavior is widely repudiated, practitioners tend to conceal it. They lie. They cheat. They steal.

Studying dishonesty, especially lying, for over a decade, the scant theoretical framework has always struck me for explaining who lies and who doesn’t. Some have suggested a laundry list of motivations to lie, such as getting ahead, sparing someone’s feelings, avoiding embarrassment, etc. Others have noted certain groups of people who tend to be less honest than others, such as adolescents, prison inmates, those with low self-esteem, etc.

Other researchers have offered broad theoretical perspectives, such as the notion people lie when the truth just won’t do. Still, others have offered narrow theoretical glimpses into specific facets of dishonesty, such as the notion that people restrain their dishonesty to preserve their self-image.

The result of the theoretical void is that the scientific work on lying and other forms of dishonesty is spread about with little conceptual connections. For instance, the work on lie detection seems conceptually removed from the work on motivations to lie. What is lacking is a broad meta-theoretical perspective that ties all work on honesty and dishonesty together.

Here I offer such a theoretical model for consideration. I tentatively refer to it as the tripartite theory of dishonesty. The theory suggests that dishonesty occurs as a function of three conditions:

1. The expected utility of lying.

People behave dishonestly when they spot an opportunity for dishonesty to allow them access to desirable outcomes that honesty would not. When people have violated rules, lying allows them to escape punishment. When an employee has embezzled money, lying allows them to take the money they otherwise would not have had.

But people also lie for more noble reasons, such as to spare the feelings of a loved one. Still, lies occur when the liar spots an opportunity to get a desirable result that honesty would not produce. For the most part, people tend to lie when the truth will cause others to think, feel, or react in ways they wish to avoid.

2. The expected external disutility risk of lying (the probability and consequences of being detected) is acceptable.

People tend to behave dishonestly when they think their dishonesty will go undetected and when the consequences of detection are tolerable. People do not lie if their dishonesty is likely to be detected and punished. When people feel confident they will get away with their dishonesty, they often take the risk. In line with this notion, when people are fairly anonymous, they are much more inclined to be dishonest.

However, people also lie when the perceived consequences of their discovery are viewed as tolerable. People may tell polite lies about leaving a party early because of obligations the following morning. Even if discovered, these types of lies generally are not punished, as they are recognized as social niceties.

People weigh the balance between the expected outcome of honesty and the expected outcome of lying. When dishonesty seems worth the risk, people lie.

3. The expected internal disutility of lying (guilt, regret, shame, effort) is acceptable.

People have the capacity to conceptualize a higher moral realm that they perceive as satisfying. People behave morally (honestly) to feel the satisfaction of being in that higher moral realm. Likewise, people generally avoid dishonesty because it leads to moral dissatisfaction or degraded self. This aversion to dishonesty seems distinct from any aversion to treating people unfairly or causing people harm.

People are willing to treat others unfairly, but they are much less inclined to do so via deception. People actively avoid lying to someone, even when lying versus truth results in exactly the same outcome. There is a specific value attached to the truth, regardless of the consequences. There is a moral aversion to lying per se.

However, people have a remarkable capacity to justify their dishonesty ethically. They manage to convince themselves that they are lying for the greater good (my lie will prevent many other bad things from happening). They devalue the target of their dishonesty (that person has always been a jerk to me anyway). They use counterfactuals to rationalize their lying (if others were in this situation, they would do the same thing).

Psychological distortive processes such as cognitive dissonance slip in (while my words are not true, they are not a lie). Also, people will engage in a form of moral accounting to justify their dishonesty (I was honest all week, so a little lie right now isn’t that bad).

Feeling bad is not the only internal disutility of dishonesty. People also recognize that lying takes a toll in the form of effort. To generate a lie, people must put forth effort to concoct believable stories. Further, the liar must remember to never again mention any information that might contradict their lie. All of this takes effort, and people generally avoid needless effort when possible.

In summary, the tripartite theory of dishonesty posits that the decision to be dishonest (D) is a function (f) of the expected utility of dishonesty (U), the expected external disutility of dishonesty (ED), and the expected internal disutility of dishonesty (ID).

D=f(U,ED,ID)

This theoretical framework offers a concise model for predicting why, when, and for whom dishonesty is likely. Additionally, it offers obvious predictions for how to reduce the occurrence of dishonesty. This theory and its implications are covered in greater depth in my forthcoming book, Big Liars.

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