Until now, the standard economic view had suggested that people decide whether to lie or not depending on what they expect to receive in return. A study that has just been published in the journal Experimental Economics indicates that this is not always the case: people tell the truth because they are purely averse to lying.
Researchers from the Autonomous University of Madrid (UAM) and the University of Quebec in Montreal (Canada) have carried out an experiment to discover the reasons why people lie or tell the truth in a given situation.
“It is a very simple experiment using the methodology of experimental economics. The objective was to investigate why people are honest. In economic theory, the standard view – predominant until a few decades ago – was that people are only motivated by their own material gain. That is to say, we are selfish in this respect: we will always tell the truth if it is to our material advantage, and we will lie if this is not the case,” Raúl López, researcher at the UAM and co-author of the work, tells SINC.
The researchers point out that this prediction seems to have certain limitations because there is ample evidence that people tell the truth even if there is a material cost involved. This gives rise to different hypotheses.
“We have studied the relevance of one of these explanations to see what percentage of support it receives. The hypothesis is that people are honest because they have internalized this quality, and the contrary makes them feel a negative emotion like guilt or shame, which is known as pure lie aversion,” López explains.
The other motivations hypothesized are altruism, conformity with what we think the other person expects us to say, or obligation or desire not to disappoint the income expectations of the other person.
Experiment with colours and money
258 people participated in the experiment, dividing up the roles of messenger and recipient. The messenger sat in front of a computer screen and was shown what the experts called a random signal, in this case, a green or blue circle which appeared indistinctly. Once the messenger had observed the colour, he had to send a message to the recipient stating that “the blue circle appeared” or “the green circle appeared”, in other words, he could lie or tell the truth. The recipient was at all times unaware of the colour, he only received the message.
Moreover, they were given certain monetary payments depending on whether the decision was to lie or to tell the truth. “The recipient always received 10 euros, whatever happened. The messenger received 15 euros if he sent the green message and 14 euros if he sent the blue.
Thus he faced the dilemma of whether to lie or not to earn more money. To clarify the motivation and see whether conformism was a factor – in that people tell the truth because they think that it is what they are expected to say - they repeated the experiment, first with a high probability of green, and then of blue.
Given that lying only yields monetary benefits when the signal is blue, the recipient was more likely to expect a lie when the probability of blue was high. Anticipating this, the conformist messenger would tend to lie more in the latter case.
“We observed that conformism did not affect the decision and that 40% of people always told the truth. This fact supports the hypothesis that these people were adverse to lying. It appears to be a very strong evidence,” the co-author of the study argues.
Only studies correlate with honesty
Neither religion, nor gender, nor political preference was related to being honest. According to the experts, who introduced these variables in the study, there is a clear correlation between behaviour, honesty and type of studies. “We observed that economists and businesspeople lie more,” López notes.
The authors also analyzed the expectations of people who always tell the truth and liars. “We also did this providing financial incentives. We saw that honest people believe that others are honest. Whereas dishonest people believe that others will also lie,” she concludes.
Raúl López-Pérez y Eli Spiegelman. “Why do People Tell the Truth? Experimental Evidence for Pure Lie aversion*” Experimental Economics16, (3): 233-247 septiembre de 2013.
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