Why We Lie: A Surprisingly Simple Way to Spur Greater Honesty


Fifteen-year-old Jake is a high school basketball star. We invited Jake to go into another room and toss beanbags through holes of various sizes in a plywood target, then report back to us with his final score. Our hidden camera recorded that he scored six out of a possible fifteen points (not too good for a basketball phenom). As Jake approached our table to report his score, we wondered—would he embrace his shame and tell the truth? Or would he lie to get the extra $1 per point we promised him? Eighty percent of his colleagues in our experiment had lied. Would Jake follow suit—or fess up?

Most of us lie. Studies have shown that lying is actually the natural order of things. From the time we are small, we learn there are powerful incentives to say what works rather than what’s true. The question is, why? Do we lie because we are morally bankrupt from birth? Or is there something more fixable going on? Given the importance of trust to healthy relationships, families, and communities, how can we help people do the unnatural? How can we, in spite of all the immediate incentives to do the opposite, influence people to tell the truth?

The answer—at least in part—is surprisingly simple. And it begins with understanding one truth: most of our immoral actions are due not to moral defect, but to moral slumber. Thus, what we need is not a radical exorcism, but a bit of a wake-up call.

Let’s set lying aside for a moment and look at a different example of ethical decision-making and how little it takes to influence people to make decent choices.

Have you ever wondered whether a cook having a bad day takes it out on your food? Ryan Buell and colleagues from Harvard Business School did a fascinating experiment in a restaurant to test the effect of cameras on food quality. In one condition, customers were able to see the cooks as they prepared their food. In another, it was the reverse—cooks were provided with screens showing diners receiving their food. Which intervention would you guess made the biggest difference in food quality? Surprisingly, it was the second! You might think allowing customers to inspect quality would put cooks on notice and compel better quality. It didn’t. What made a difference was not inspection but connection. When cooks could see those eating their food, they cooked better (as judged by customers) and faster (as judged by a stopwatch)!

All the cooks needed in order to care more about taking care of customers was to feel connected to them. It’s easy to get morally dozy when you can’t see the effect of your work. And it’s remarkably easy to invite people to greater integrity by simply connecting them with the moral and human content of their actions.

Now back to lying and the beanbag toss. In the first round of our experiment, we asked teenagers to report their own scores (which we verified using a hidden camera), and we paid them $1 for each point. Eighty percent of the subjects lied. Some of them lied by more than 200 percent. And ironically, many of these kids had recently attended a Bible study class!

In the second round, we tested the power of a self-administered moral wake-up call by simply encouraging participants to think about their own morals.

Psychologist Albert Bandura suggests that you and I spend most of our lives morally disengaged. We make choices without thinking about their human consequences. When our phone buzzes as we drive in freeway traffic we feel tempted to read and respond to the message. When we do, it’s not because we don’t care about the safety of ourselves and others. It’s because we aren’t thinking about safety. We’re thinking instead about the profound urgency of the text message reverberating in our mobile device. If cooks make better choices when they feel connected to customers, would teens make better choices if given an opportunity to connect with their conscience?

After explaining the beanbag toss to the second-round subjects, we gave them a slip of paper that asked them if they were willing to commit to be honest about their score. Then we invited them to sign a statement committing to do that. All chose to do so.

Jake was one of the second-round subjects. After completing his pitiful performance he approached the table, hung his head, and with a self-conscious smile, told the truth: “I got six.”

When participants were invited to think about their own values and make a voluntary commitment to abide by them, the outcomes were completely reversed. This time, 80 percent of the subjects told the truth.

The most powerful way to improve the moral character of our world is not policing, but connecting. We can help one another stay morally engaged by simply connecting people with their own values and with the consequences of their choices.

About Author:

Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for business performance. For thirty years, Joseph has delivered engaging keynotes at major conferences including the HSM World Business Forum at Radio City Music Hall. Joseph’s work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500.

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