Lying messes with your assessment of others’ emotions

(Credit: Getty Images)

Dishonesty diminishes a person’s ability to read others’ emotions, or “interpersonal cognition,” according to new research.

And here’s one of the other key findings: The consequences snowball. One dishonest act can set in motion even more dishonesty.

“It can be a vicious cycle,” says Ashley E. Hardin, assistant professor of organizational behavior at the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis. “Sometimes people will tell a white lie and think it’s not a big deal. But a decision to be dishonest in one moment will have implications for how you interact with people subsequently.”

The cost of lying

It’s no surprise that liars and cheaters can hurt the workplace, as well.

“Given the rise of group work in organizations, there’s a heightened awareness of the importance of understanding others’ emotions,” Hardin says. Also, a person’s ability to read emotions is crucial in negotiations and in building relationships.

Dishonesty has repercussions beyond harming trust and one’s reputation if others become aware of it, according to the study.

Scientists estimate that this behavior comes at a $3.7 trillion cost annually worldwide. Lying and cheating is “not only is financially costly (as in the case of stealing from a company, for example, or increasing the risk of costly lawsuits) but also can harm interpersonal relationships through a particular channel: individuals’ ability to detect others’ emotions,” even when those others are not the victims of the wrongdoing.

Lies and empathy

In all, the researchers conducted eight studies involving more than 1,500 adults to gauge lying and cheating in various scenarios. The findings support the following:

  • A connection exists between dishonest behavior and our ability to accurately read and empathize with others’ emotions.
  • Bad actors are less likely than others to define themselves in terms of close relationships, for example as a sister or a mentor.
  • Dishonest behavior leads to damage downstream; the first transgression is a catalyst to dehumanize others and perform even more dishonest acts.
  • People who are more socially attuned are less likely to behave dishonestly.

“When individuals are lacking their physiological capacity for social sensitivity, they may be more susceptible to the social distancing effects of engaging in dishonest behavior,” the researchers write.

The findings fundamentally challenge views that lump morality and empathy into a single construct, Hardin says. Social psychology research has long argued that empathy is a moral sentiment that triggers prosocial behavior. But empathy toward others can also lead employees to cross ethical boundaries.

A 2010 study, for example, highlighted the importance of social context in ethical decision-making. Researchers found that employees doing emissions checks helped customers with standard vehicles, as opposed to luxury cars, by illegally passing the cars. The results suggest that empathy toward others with a similar economic status can motivate dishonest behavior.

“Our work adds to this dynamic tension between dishonesty and empathy by showing… that one’s empathic accuracy can be affected by the specific psychological state produced by one’s dishonest behavior,” the researchers write.

The study appears in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Additional researchers from the University of Michigan; the University of Virginia; and Harvard University contributed to the work.

Source: Washington University in St. Louis