People are more willing to excuse lies that they think might one day become true
We all know lying is wrong. That’s why we get in trouble for it as kids (and sometimes as adults), and why you’ll rarely, if ever, meet a priest, imam, rabbi, lama, mobad, guru, philosopher or high school guidance counselor who tolerates this as a general rule. And yet, whether it’s climate change, vaccines, asylum seekers, or anything else, we seem to be living in a golden age of misinformation. Obviously some people didn’t get the memo. So what gives?
“The rise of misinformation is a pressing societal problem, fueling political polarization and eroding trust in business and politics,” said Beth Anne Helgason, lead author of a new study, published this week in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
“Misinformation persists in part because some people believe it. But that’s only part of the story,” she said. “Misinformation also persists because sometimes people know it’s wrong but are still willing to excuse it.”
According to the study, it turns out that people are quite happy to excuse a lie – a real lie, that is, not just a faked truth, or to repeat something without first checking whether it’s true. is true – if they mean it could come true in the future.
“Because no one knows what will happen, people have the freedom to imagine the future as they see fit,” the newspaper explains.
“We suggest that when people want to imagine that a lie might come true – because that prediction matches their pre-existing motivations and beliefs – then pre-factual thinking will have a greater effect in reducing their condemnation of lying now.”
To some extent, that’s quite relatable. In one of the six experiments described in the article, the researchers asked more than 400 students from nearly 60 different countries to imagine a scenario in which their friend had lied on their CV – he “listed[ed] financial modeling as a skill…despite the fact that he has no financial modeling experience,” the article gives as an example.
Maybe you already think that’s not such a bad lie, maybe not. But then half of the participants were given another task: “consider that if the same friend enrolls in a financial modeling course that the school offers in the summer, then he could develop experience with financial modelling.
What do you think? Is it always such a bad lie?
The study participants didn’t think so. Although it was pointed out that the additional statement was purely hypothetical – there is no guarantee that your friend will be enroll in this course, or that he will develop experience with financial modeling even if he has – the simple act of thinking about how lying could become true made participants rate it significantly less unethical.
Why? Because “the main thing” is true, they said.
“[We] found that lying on a resume seemed less unethical…when they imagined how the lie might become true in the future,” the paper explains. “Furthermore… such imagination made the gist of the lies more true, which in turn predicted more lenient moral judgments.”
Alright, so maybe your buddy Jeff gets a job he’s not qualified for. Big problem, you say. Good for him. But the study also revealed much bigger – and more concerning – findings.
For example: did you know that white Americans are 300% more likely to be approved for mortgages than black or Hispanic applicants with the same credentials? Or that millions of people voted illegally in the last presidential election?
Chances are one of these statements holds truer to you than the other. In fact, both are wrong – the true numbers are 10% and four people respectively.
But even when participants were openly exposed to the facts of the situation, researchers found that asking them to imagine a way in which lying might become true made them less likely to condemn it — and less likely to condemn its spread.
And of course, this result corresponded to political lines, but perhaps not in the way you imagine. The fact is, the researchers realized, we’re simply better at finding — and believing — hypothetical ways that lies might come true when the lie already matches our worldview. Consider the examples above: If you lean to the right politically, chances are you can imagine a fairly plausible way for future US elections to be overrun with illegal voting. In other words, the statement may be false, but the essential it’s true.
If you lean to the left, on the other hand, it will be much more difficult to reach the same conclusion.
“Our results reveal how our capacity for imagination affects political disagreements and our willingness to excuse misinformation,” Helgason said. “Unlike claims about what is true, propositions about what might become true are impossible to verify. Thus, supporters who are certain that a lie will eventually become true may be difficult to convince otherwise.
So what can we do about it? Unfortunately, the study doesn’t have many right answers – the methods they investigated in hopes of denying the effect had little to no impact against the power of human imagination and the bias of confirmation. The best bet, however, seemed to be getting people to focus on the literal truth of the statement before inventing a reason why their preferred reality is, in fact, true regardless.
“Our results are concerning, especially since we find that encouraging people to think carefully about the ethics of statements was not enough to reduce the effects of imagining a future where this might be true,” said study co-author Daniel Effron, professor of organization. behavior at London Business School.
“It highlights the negative consequences of giving airtime to business and political leaders who spout lies.”