Why do some political figures appear to be able to get away with bending the truth and sometimes telling outrageous lies?
A new study suggests people have more leniency for those lies when they bolster a shared belief that a specific political stance is morally right.
“It appears to be because those lies are perceived by supporters as an acceptable and, perhaps necessary, means to achieve a higher moral end,” said Allison Mueller, a doctoral candidate in psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago and lead author of the study. “A troubling and timely implication of these findings is that political figures may be able to act in corrupt ways without damaging their images, at least in the eyes of their supporters.”
For the study, Mueller and Dr. Linda Skitka, a professor of psychology, examined responses to a 2014 survey where participants read a political monologue about federal funding for Planned Parenthood that they believed was previously aired over public radio.
Respondents were randomly assigned to two groups: One was informed the monologue they had just read was true, the other was told it was false.
They were then asked to report the extent to which they believed that the speaker was justified in delivering the monologue.
Lastly, they reported their positions for federal funding of women’s reproductive services and their moral conviction for the issue.
Although honesty was positively valued by all respondents, the researchers found that lying that served a shared morale goal was more accepted. Advocacy in support of an opposing view was more condemned, regardless of whether the statement was true or false, according to the study’s findings.
Skitka says the findings expand knowledge of the moral mandate in two ways.
“Moral conviction for a cause, not the fairness of procedures, may shape people’s perceptions of any target who engages in norm-violating behaviors that uphold moralized causes, such as federally funded family planning in this situation,” she said. “The findings also suggest that, although people are not comfortable excusing others for heinous crimes that serve a moralized end, they appear comparatively tolerant of norm violations like lying.”
The study was published in Social Psychological and Personality Science.