A few years ago, my colleagues and I did an experiment to test what induces people to lie — or tell the truth. Click here (registration required) to see the full experiment.
One of our subjects was 15-year-old Jake, a high school basketball star. We invited Jake to toss beanbags through holes of various sizes in a plywood target. He scored six out of a possible 15 points (not too good for a basketball phenom). As Jake approached our table to report his score, we wondered — would he embrace his shame and tell the truth? Or would he lie to get the extra $1 per point we promised him?
We all lie. And if you don’t believe that, you’re probably lying to yourself. Studies have shown that lying is actually the natural order of things. From the time we are small, we learn there are powerful incentives to modify how we appear and to control the information we share with others.
So, given the importance of trust to healthy relationships, families and communities, how can we help people do the unnatural? How can we, in spite of all the immediate incentives to do the opposite, influence people to tell the truth?
Turns out, simply changing the way we communicate can be a powerful way to influence greater honesty.
Psychologist Bella DePaulo from UC Santa Barbara estimates that the average person tells three lies every 10 minutes. We lie about how we feel. We strategically edit our opinions to fit the group we’re chatting with. We select which parts of ourselves to reveal or suppress in order to create particular impressions. We overstate (or, if we’re trying to avoid an assignment, understate) our competence. We frequently feign powerlessness in order to exit conversations — “Sorry, I’ve got to go!” (A. Are you really sorry? And B. What is forcing you to go? Someone holding your cat hostage, perhaps?)
Our proclivity to lie begins early. Once we did an experiment in which we randomly assigned 3-year-olds to drink either a small cup of sweet, delicious orange juice or a similar cup tainted with salt. The salt was so strong that the tykes puckered involuntarily. Immediately after they drunk the juice, we asked the child to look into the camera and say, as convincingly as they could, “Yum! This is great juice! You should try some.” We videotaped the performances and then showed them to adults — asking them to guess which tots were fibbing. Few could spot the liars. At age 3, the kids had learned the basics of lying. They knew enough to look sincerely into the camera, smile and in other ways fake emotion they didn’t really feel.
Now back to the beanbag toss. In the first round of our experiment, we asked teenagers to report their own scores (which we verified using a hidden camera), and we paid them $1 for each point. Eighty percent of the subjects lied. Some of them lied by more than 200 percent. And ironically, many of these kids had just finished a Bible study class.
In the second round, we tested the power of a self-administered moral wake-up call. We wanted to test whether lying is the result of a cankered soul, or if it is more often a simple lack of moral alertness.
Psychologist Albert Bandura suggests that you and I spend most of our lives morally disengaged. We make choices without thinking about their human consequences. If this is true, perhaps we could help people make better choices by simply inviting them to think about their own values before making choices.
After explaining the beanbag toss to the second-round subjects, we gave them a slip of paper that asked them if they were willing to commit to be honest about their score. Then we invited them to sign a statement committing to do that. All chose to do so.
Jake was one of the second-round subjects. After completing his pitiful performance, he approached the table, hung his head and, with a self-conscious smile, told the truth: “I got six.”
When the participants were invited to think about their own values and make a voluntary commitment to abide by them, the outcomes were completely reversed. This time, 80 percent of the subjects told the truth.
The most powerful way to improve the moral character of our world is not policing, but talking. We can help one another stay morally engaged by simply talking more often about the values embedded in the decisions of the moment.
Joseph Grenny, the Behavioral Science Guy, is a New York Times best-selling author and co-founder of VitalSmarts. For 30 years, he has led a research team helping organizations achieve new levels of performance.