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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.


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19 thoughts on “Why We Lie: A Surprisingly Simple Way to Spur Greater Honesty”

  1. Terry Faulkner

    Great fascinating research. Thanks so much.

  2. Tracy

    Awesome truth…..Thank you so much

  3. Kumar Grandhi

    Great, Really Good.. One Question Sir, .. When we have complete evidence/confidence that other person (with higher position above us) are not completely TRUTHFUL / transparent enough, Do you have any suggestions to get them connected in the above said fashion so that they will be more honest in future. Thanks.

    1. josephgrenny

      Good question, Kumar. The most important first step is to discuss the behavior. You need to humanize the consequence of the action – and the best way to do it is to safely and respectfully let others know how it affected you without attaching judgment. You may know “what” they did (gave incorrect information) – but you don’t know “why” they did it (intentional deception?).

      1. PetrusJKruger

        Again, this has been an immensely compelling video. I do my best to share them wherever I can.

        As a matter of interest, have you ever done research on approachability? Kumar’s question made me wonder about that, because sometimes we tend to tell lies, or half truths, because we are afraid to violate that person’s expectations.

        For example, I am doing a master’s degree in engineering. Sometimes my study leaders violate my expectations during a crucial moment by their reaction to my suggestion or comment. Even though I am unhappy about this, I tend to act like everything is perfectly fine (lying) because I no longer have the confidence to approach them about my concerns. In the end, this also affects my work negatively.

  4. Kate

    I’ve been wondering recently if the seat reclining war on airplanes has to do with the fact that we all sit facing the back of seats. And therefore, never see the person in whose face we throw the back of our seat.

    I have had the back of the seat in front of me throw my meal tray in my lap, spill my soda, bang my head, etc.

    You can probably tell which faction I belong to with this statement. I have to make a long flight in the very near future and plan to introduce myself to the person sitting in front of me. I wonder if that will make a difference.

    1. josephgrenny

      That is a VERY good tactic. Let me know how it works!

  5. Kit Sprague

    Excellent essay, Joseph. I am a Rotarian, and we have a little thing we call the 4-Way Test of the things we think, say or do. And sure enough, beside honesty (the truth), it includes things like friendship, and beneficial to all parties.
    1. Is it the truth?
    2. Is it fair to all concerned?
    3. Will it build good will and better friendships?
    4. Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

    BINGO! Your examples prove that this approach works for just about any of life’s daily dilemmas. Thanks, my friend.

  6. Julie DeAngelis

    I love watching you guys!! This is an interesting study about lying. I posted it on my FB page. If only more people were morally awake than asleep, think of the difference it would make in the world!!

  7. CR Petersen

    Many years ago I lead a pilot project working with single adults with disabilities. The purpose was to either help them to become employed or receive better more permanent disability services. It was extremely successful with about a third becoming employed and about a third receiving better more permanent assistance. (About 1/3 moved.) There were a number of local and national articles written on the program. While there were many reasons for the success of the program, one was the personal relationships which were built, including a lot of appropriate touch such as handshakes and hugs.
    About half way through the project I was speaking with another staff member who was working in another program and who was preparing a presentation on how to tell if a client was lying to them. I explained to him that according to research they would decrease the chance that the other person would lie to them if they shook their hand at the beginning of their meeting. The person thought about it for a moment, then said “naw.” It was both sad and a bit humorous.

  8. Karen Bennett

    “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!”
    I’m hoping this isn’t a shot at if you went to a Bible Study Class that exempts all persons from lying. Not so as there are unfortunate social situations that students in particular are tying to fit into. Not ideal, lying is not encouraged in a Bible class and or Bible teaching churches.

    1. josephgrenny

      Absolutely not! I would hope that connecting with sacred texts connects us with our deepest values. It certainly does for me.

  9. Morally Awake

    Great article! Timely for me because my husband and I were just talking about this very issue! I personally “lied” yesterday in a conference with my priest! I got so involved in the energy of the conversation and uplifting him and our parish that I said things I didn’t mean….were not true! I left thinking I need to go back and tell him the “truth”! I wanted to be nice and so I lied! I find myself adding “more” when in conversation…fudging with the numbers and facts to make the interaction more——
    Well, your article tells me why:):):) Also, by creating the environment of being morally awake you make it safe and acceptable.
    Good to know! This will help me in my work with high schoolers as well:)
    Thank you:) Can’t wait for the next article and video:)

  10. Grateful

    Great Article! As an adult who constantly analyzes my self, my kids, and my employees. I’ve recognized this phenomenon, but didn’t have a simple way of going about addressing it. I’ll give this a shot. Thanks!

  11. HDO

    I see your point but I disagree. Yes you can encourage people to do the right thing: put a bug in their ear so to speak, but their “natural” morals have been set by that age, by how they were raised. If they are taught very early that lying is ok or not, they will continue down that path. Unfortunately with all the political correctness now, you can’t discipline kids or tell them they are wrong. It’s sad.

  12. Karen

    When watching the Why Do We Lie video, I noticed that the kid shown from the first group appeared to be alone when he played the game. In the portion showing the second group, several kids were tossing their bean bags at the same time. If the video represented the actual experiment, you introduced a new variable in the second half that could have impacted the outcome. Accountability. There is less opportunity for cheating and lying with others present. Also, changing the conditions of the experiment spoils the results.

  13. Steve Acevedo

    This article is an excellent example of why I follow you guys. Outstanding information! You’re informative, precise, and inspiring. Thanks for the continual, interesting, and relevant insights into topics that affect us all in our everyday lives.

  14. Laura

    This excerpt “And ironically, many of these kids had recently attended a Bible study class!” Didn’t sit well with me. It feels like the message is that if you don’t go to church or believe in God then you don’t have the same moral standards as those who do. You can have strong morals regardless of your religious beliefs.

    1. PetrusJKruger

      Hi Laura, perhaps that seemed a little ambigious, but I understood it differently. I understood it as a comment that the kids had just attended a class which upheld a specific set of morals as standard, which included “Thou shalt not lie.” Yet immediately after that class, they did not hold up that standard themselves. I agree 100% with you that high morals don’t necesitate religious beliefs. Obviously, religious beliefs don’t seem to necesitate morals either, though it is supposed to if that religion should be considered authentic.

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