Faculty Articles

On being honest about dishonesty: The social costs of taking nuanced (but realistic) moral stances.

Document Type

Article

Publication Date

3-2023

Publication Title

Journal of Personality and Social Psychology

ISSN or ISBN

1939-1315

Volume

125

Issue/Number

2

First Page

259

ISSN

1939-1315

Last Page

283

Abstract/Excerpt

Despite the well-documented costs of word–deed misalignment, hypocrisy permeates our personal, professional, and political lives. Why? We explore one potential explanation: the costs of moral flexibility can outweigh the costs of hypocrisy, making hypocritical moral absolutism a preferred social strategy to admissions of moral nuance. We study this phenomenon in the context of honesty. Across six studies (total N = 3545), we find that communicators who take flexible honesty stances (“It is sometimes okay to lie”) that align with their behavior are penalized more than hypocritical communicators who take absolute honesty stances (“It is never okay to lie”) that they fail to uphold. Although few people take absolute stances against deception themselves, they are more trusting of communicators who take absolute honesty stances, relative to flexible honesty stances, because they perceive absolute stances as reliable signals of communicators’ likelihood of engaging in future honesty, regardless of inconsistent behavior. Importantly, communicators—including U.S. government officials—also anticipate the costs of flexibility. This research deepens our understanding of the psychology of honesty and helps explain the persistence of hypocrisy in our social world. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2023 APA, all rights reserved)

DOI

10.1037/pspa0000340

ORCID ID

0000-0002-4082-9505

Comments

The authors thank attendees of the Center for Decision Research brownbag and members of the Honesty Opportunity Prosociality and Ethics lab at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business for feedback on this project. They thank Michael White and Solomon Lister for research assistance and the Center for Decision Research for support in data collection. They also thank Ayelet Fishbach and Bernd Wittenbrink for comments on the article. Finally, they thank the Charles E. Merrill Faculty Scholarship for financial support.

© 2023 American Psychological Association

PubMed ID

36877483

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