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No gain without pain: The psychological costs of dishonesty

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  • Thielmann, Isabel
  • Hilbig, Benjamin E.

Abstract

Psychological accounts of dishonesty propose that lying incurs subjective costs due to threatening individuals’ moral self-image. However, evidence is restricted to indirect tests of such costs, thus limiting strong conclusions about corresponding theories. We present a more direct test of the costs of lying. Specifically, if lying is psychologically costly, individuals should feel entitled to gains they obtained through dishonesty – similar to those they actually earned through getting lucky or even investing effort. Correspondingly, in three experiments, we compared individuals’ willingness to share in the dictator game, with varying mechanisms generating the to-be-shared endowment: getting lucky, exerting (cognitive) effort, and lying. We consistently found that individuals were at least as unwilling to share an endowment obtained through dishonesty as an endowment obtained through individual effort or true luck. This suggests that individuals perceived gains obtained through dishonesty as “hard-earned”, thus directly supporting the theory that lying involves psychological costs.

Suggested Citation

  • Thielmann, Isabel & Hilbig, Benjamin E., 2019. "No gain without pain: The psychological costs of dishonesty," Journal of Economic Psychology, Elsevier, vol. 71(C), pages 126-137.
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:joepsy:v:71:y:2019:i:c:p:126-137
    DOI: 10.1016/j.joep.2018.06.001
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    Cited by:

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    6. Luka Koning & Marianne Junger & Joris Hoof, 2020. "Digital signatures: a tool to prevent and predict dishonesty?," Mind & Society: Cognitive Studies in Economics and Social Sciences, Springer;Fondazione Rosselli, vol. 19(2), pages 257-285, November.
    7. Ben-Ner, Avner & Hu, Fangtingyu, 2021. "Lying in a finitely repeated game," Economics Letters, Elsevier, vol. 201(C).
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    9. Hillie Aaldering & Alfred Zerres & Wolfgang Steinel, 2020. "Constituency Norms Facilitate Unethical Negotiation Behavior Through Moral Disengagement," Group Decision and Negotiation, Springer, vol. 29(5), pages 969-991, October.

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