You May Be Less Honest With Others Than You Should Be

Honesty leads to better conversations than most people assume.

Posted Sep 18, 2018

Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images
Source: Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images

There are all sorts of situations in which you probably avoid being honest in conversations. You might be afraid of hurting someone else’s feelings. You might want to avoid having other people find out negative things about you. You might be afraid to admit shortcomings. You might be feeling sad and not want to drag the conversation down.

In many of these cases, you avoid honesty in order to try to make a conversation go well. That means, that you predict that honesty will lead to conversations that are not so enjoyable and may even do harm to your relationship with the other person.

Is this prediction accurate?

This question was explored in a paper by Emma Levine and Taya Cohen in the September, 2018 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

In one study, they recruited participants for a field study. One group of about 50 was encouraged to be as honest as possible in all of their conversations over the next 3 days. A second group of about 50 was encouraged to be as kind as possible in their conversations. A third group of 50 was just told to pay attention to the way they communicated over 3 days. Each day, participants made ratings of how much they enjoyed the conversations they had, the strength of the social connection they had, and the meaning in those conversations. They also rated the long-term harm they did to their relationship.

A fourth group of over 200 participants was asked to predict what would happen in these conditions. They read about the honesty, kindness, and attention conditions and rated the expected enjoyment, social connection, and meaning of the interactions that people would have in each condition.

Consistent with the idea that people mis-predict the effects of honesty, the predictions of enjoyment and social connection were much lower than the actual experience of the people in those conditions. The degree of meaning was roughly the same as predicted. The predictions of long-term relational harm were much higher than what people actually experienced.

So, this field study suggested that people predicted that honesty would be worse than it was.

Of course, there are many things that might have been going on in this field study. Perhaps people talked about different things when being honest than when being kind. Or perhaps people instructed to be honest avoided conversations altogether. The experimenters did ask people open-ended questions about the conversations they had, which did not reveal differences across conditions. But, it is always important to treat self-reports with some caution.

To deal with these problems, the experimenters did two follow-up studies.

In one study, one group of participants brought a friend or romantic partner to the lab to have a conversation. Another group served as predictors.

For participants having a conversation, one member of the pair was given a list of topics to discuss. The other was told to respond to the questions as honestly as possible. Then, the two could engage in a conversation. The list of topics was drawn from things participants in the first study said they talked about with others. After the conversation, participants rated enjoyment, social connection, relationship harm, and meaning like the people in the first study. The predictors read about the study and predicted the enjoyment, social connection, relationship harm and meaning they would experience if they actually did the study.

This study has the benefit of ensuring that everyone talked about similar topics. The results were largely the same as the field study. Predictors expected they would enjoy the conversation less than participants actually enjoyed it. They predicted they would experience less social connection than the participants actually experienced. They predicted greater relationship harm than the participants actually reported. As before, there was no reliable difference in predicted and experienced meaning in the conversation.

A third study using a similar methodology suggested that people try to avoid honesty in conversation because of their fears that their conversation partner will have a negative reaction to the truth.

These studies suggest that in many cases, honesty might really be the best policy. Telling the truth to others does not create the level of harm to relationships that people expect it will, and it ultimately leads to about the same level of satisfaction with relationships as treating people kindly.

Of course, there is still an art to telling the truth. Being honest does not require being blunt or mean. It is possible to be honest with someone while still respecting their feelings. But, the issues you discuss with honesty can deepen your relationship with other people.

References

Levine, E.E. & Cohen, T.R. (2018). You can handle the truth: Mispredicting the consequences of honest communication. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 147(9), 1400-1429.