A Theory of Lying and Dishonesty

A Concept of Mendacity and Dishonesty


Why are some individuals dishonest whereas others select to be earnest and forthright? Why does a typical particular person stay trustworthy more often than not but sometimes lie?

It seems that what separates the trustworthy from the dishonest boils down to a few distinct variables. As soon as these three elements are understood, it turns into fairly simple to foretell when individuals will lie, cheat and steal and be honest and behave with integrity.

As I’ve written in earlier publications, it seems that most individuals are trustworthy more often than not. The everyday particular person stories mendacity just a few instances per week, and most of these lies are typically small, inconsequential white lies.

As a social species, now we have sturdy motivations to behave prosocially, and honesty is a key factor of prosociality. Nevertheless, persons are not all equally prosocial. Some constantly behave selfishly, taking greater than they offer. Since delinquent egocentric conduct is broadly repudiated, practitioners have a tendency to hide it. They lie. They cheat. They steal.

Finding out dishonesty, particularly mendacity, for over a decade, the scant theoretical framework has at all times struck me for explaining who lies and who doesn’t. Some have steered a laundry record of motivations to lie, equivalent to getting forward, sparing somebody’s emotions, avoiding embarrassment, and many others. Others have famous sure teams of people that are typically much less trustworthy than others, equivalent to adolescents, jail inmates, these with low vanity, and many others.

Different researchers have provided broad theoretical views, such because the notion individuals lie when the reality simply gained’t do. Nonetheless, others have provided slender theoretical glimpses into particular sides of dishonesty, such because the notion that individuals restrain their dishonesty to protect their self-image.

The results of the theoretical void is that the scientific work on mendacity and different types of dishonesty is unfold about with little conceptual connections. As an illustration, the work on lie detection appears conceptually faraway from the work on motivations to lie. What’s missing is a broad meta-theoretical perspective that ties all work on honesty and dishonesty collectively.

Right here I provide such a theoretical mannequin for consideration. I tentatively seek advice from it because the tripartite idea of dishonesty. The speculation means that dishonesty happens as a perform of three situations:

1. The perceived utility of mendacity.

Folks behave dishonestly after they spot a possibility for dishonesty to permit them entry to fascinating outcomes that honesty wouldn’t. When individuals have violated guidelines, mendacity permits them to flee punishment. When an worker has embezzled cash, mendacity permits them to take the cash they in any other case wouldn’t have had.

However individuals additionally lie for extra noble causes, equivalent to to spare the emotions of a cherished one. Nonetheless, lies happen when the liar spots a possibility to get a fascinating outcome that honesty wouldn’t produce. For probably the most half, individuals are inclined to lie when the reality will trigger others to suppose, really feel, or react in methods they want to keep away from.

2. The perceived exterior disutility threat of mendacity (the chance and penalties of being detected) is suitable.

Folks are inclined to behave dishonestly after they suppose their dishonesty will go undetected and when the implications of detection are tolerable. Folks don’t lie if their dishonesty is prone to be detected and punished. When individuals really feel assured they are going to get away with their dishonesty, they usually take the danger. In keeping with this notion, when persons are pretty nameless, they’re much extra inclined to be dishonest.

Nevertheless, individuals additionally lie when the perceived penalties of their discovery are considered as tolerable. Folks could inform well mannered lies about leaving a celebration early due to obligations the next morning. Even when found, these kinds of lies typically should not punished, as they’re acknowledged as social niceties.

Folks weigh the steadiness between the perceived final result of honesty and the perceived final result of mendacity. When dishonesty appears definitely worth the threat, individuals lie.

3. The perceived inner disutility of mendacity (guilt, remorse, disgrace) is suitable.

Folks have the capability to conceptualize a better ethical realm that they understand as satisfying. Folks behave morally (actually) to really feel the satisfaction of being in that increased ethical realm. Likewise, individuals typically keep away from dishonesty as a result of it results in ethical dissatisfaction or degraded self. This aversion to dishonesty appears distinct from any aversion to treating individuals unfairly or inflicting individuals hurt.

Individuals are prepared to deal with others unfairly, however they’re much much less inclined to take action by way of deception. Folks actively keep away from mendacity to somebody, even when mendacity versus fact leads to precisely the identical final result. There’s a particular worth hooked up to the reality, no matter penalties. There’s a ethical aversion to mendacity per se.

Nevertheless, individuals have a exceptional capability to justify their dishonesty ethically. They handle to persuade themselves that they’re mendacity for the higher good (my lie will stop many different dangerous issues from occurring). They devalue the goal of their dishonesty (that particular person has at all times been a jerk to me anyway). They use counterfactuals to rationalize their mendacity (if others had been on this state of affairs, they’d do the identical factor).

Psychological distortive processes equivalent to cognitive dissonance slip in (whereas my phrases should not true, they aren’t a lie). Additionally, individuals will have interaction in a type of ethical accounting to justify their dishonesty (I used to be trustworthy all week, so a little bit lie proper now isn’t that dangerous).

In abstract, the tripartite idea of dishonesty posits that the chance (p) of dishonesty (D) is a perform (f) of the perceived utility of dishonesty (U), the perceived exterior disutility of dishonesty (ED), and the perceived inner disutility of dishonesty(ID).


This theoretical framework affords a concise mannequin for predicting why, when, and for whom dishonesty is probably going. Moreover, it affords apparent predictions for methods to scale back the prevalence of dishonesty. This idea and its implications are lined in higher depth in my forthcoming e-book, Large Liars.


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