A new study suggests that, for most people, telling lies is a very uncomfortable experience — especially in their own homes.
But while it bothers us to tell lies at home, it appears that we may be more likely to bend the truth at work.
For the study, researchers from the University of Oxford and the University of Bonn conducted simple honesty tests by calling people in their own homes in Germany and asking them to flip a coin. The participants were then asked to report how the coin landed — heads or tails.
The catch to this test was that each person was given a strong financial incentive to lie without the fear of being found out. The participants were told that if the coin landed tails up, they would receive 15 euros or a gift voucher, but if the coin landed heads up, they would receive nothing.
Through randomly generated home phone numbers, 658 people were contacted who agreed to participate. Even though the researchers could not see the behavior of the participants in their own homes, the reports show a remarkably high level of honesty.
Over half of the participants (55.6 percent) reported that the coin landed heads-up, which meant they would receive nothing. Only 44.4 percent reported tails up, winning a financial reward.
The researchers conducted another similar phone test involving 94 participants. This time participants were asked to report the results of four consecutive tosses while being promised five euros for every time the coin landed tails up.
Although participants could win up to 20 euros, the feedback reflected the likely distribution of a fair coin toss, considering that the coin would have landed tails up around 50 per cent of the time.
Participants answered questions about their gender, age, views on dishonesty and their religious background. The study suggests, however, that personal attributes played no part here as the overall level of honesty in both experiments was high.
This latest study can be compared to prior similar studies, which were conducted with students in tightly controlled laboratory situations. In those studies about 75 percent of participants reported tails up, which may suggest that people are more honest in their own homes.
“The fact that the financial incentive to lie was outweighed by the perceived cost of lying shows just how honest most people are when they are in their own homes,” said Dr. Johannes Abeler, from the Department of Economics at the Oxford.
“One theory is that being honest is at the very core of how we want to perceive ourselves and is very important to our sense of self identity. Why is it so important? It may be to do with the social norms we have been given about what is right and wrong from the moment we could walk and talk.”
Abeler suggests the study has implications for policy-makers. For instance, to catch those involved in fraudulent behavior, perhaps forms and questionnaires could be designed to reveal more about personal lives and sense of self-identity.
“Our experiments showed that if people plainly see that to lie in a given situation would be fraudulent, they shy away from it. However, if people are given ‘wriggle room,’ they can convince themselves that their behavior is not fraudulent and this does not attack their sense of who they are,” he said.
Source: University of Oxford