The Many Kinds of Dishonesty

A study reveals that while many people bend the truth, few are entirely dishonest.

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskeptic
By Neuroskeptic
Aug 24, 2020 8:45 PMAug 24, 2020 9:17 PM
Two Red Dice - Science Photo Library
(Credit: Leonello Calvetti/Science Photo Library/Corbis)


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Back in 2013, a study made headlines by revealing that 60 percent of people will lie to get more money.

The 2013 study used a "die-under-a-cup" task: Volunteers were given a six-sided die and asked to secretly roll it, then report what they rolled. The participants had previously been told that rolls of 1-5 would be rewarded by payment of $1 to $5, accordingly, while a roll of six would mean no payment. Lo and behold, a high proportion of participants reported rolling a five, while sixes were rare — suggesting that this was either a very lucky group of people, or not a very honest one.

Now, a new study has appeared, using a clever twist on the die-under-a-cup method. The new experiment reveals the surprising variety in the ways people lie and cheat.

Spanish psychologists David Pascual-Ezama et al. recruited 172 volunteers and asked them to roll a virtual die. Participants were asked to visit a certain website, and click to roll a simulated die once. They then had to report the roll, and were paid accordingly. (The site is still live.)

What the participants didn't know was that the researchers had set up the website themselves, and could log exactly what the real rolls were. In the original 2013 study, the true rolls were unknown, but Pascual-Ezama et al. were able to directly compare the real rolls to the reported ones.

The new study found that 60 percent of people were less than fully honest. But the dishonest ones were dishonest in a surprising variety of ways:

  • Some people ("liars") visited the site, rolled a number, and then lied about it (e.g. they rolled a 6, and claimed to have got a 5).

  • Others never lied about their roll, but instead repeated their roll until they got a good outcome. Pascual-Ezama et al. class these people as "cheaters," rather than liars.

  • Most deceptive of all were those who never visited the site at all — the "radically dishonest." They simply made up a roll out of thin air. These made up about 15 percent of participants.

I find this a really interesting study, and oddly comforting. While the results show that only 40 percent of people were fully honest, the results suggest that most of the other 60 percent were not completely dishonest.

The cheaters rolled the die again and again until they got the right result. They didn't have to do that: They could just have lied. The liars lied, but they did at least roll the die. Both of these groups were dishonest, but not to the same extent as the radically dishonest.

Pascual-Ezama suggest that even liars feel bad about lying and would prefer not to do it, which is why most people who lied did roll the die first: They were hoping for a genuinely good roll, which would mean they wouldn't need to lie. Alternatively, it could be that people believe they will tell the truth before rolling the dice, but change their mind when they see a bad roll.

Overall, the fact that the majority of dishonest people didn't adopt radical dishonesty suggests that even (most) liars and cheaters were unwilling to completely leave the truth behind.

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