Commentary: We're more likely to accept lies if we think they may be true one day
We tend to overestimate the future and this has repercussions in politics and business, in which forward-looking statements are the norm, says the Financial Times' Anjana Ahuj.
LONDON: Liars get away with their deceptions for many reasons. A falsehood may, all told, seem trivial or inconsequential. Fibbing can be for the greater good: It is arguably kinder to reassure an anxious colleague of his new haircut than to stare aghast at his pate.
Now psychologists have uncovered a new way in which we accept the untruths told to us – and it rests on our capacity to imagine the future.
People are more inclined to excuse what they know to be a present day lie if they believe that it may one day become true, especially if the fiction aligns with their beliefs. Whether the dishonesty in question comprises embellishing a job CV or overstating the extent of gun violence, research shows that individuals can be psychologically primed to give false information a moral pass.
The work has repercussions for both politics and business, in which rose-tinted, forward-looking statements are the norm.
“The results are concerning because people can’t fact-check what might become true in the future,” says Beth Anne Helgason, a doctoral student in organisational psychology at the London Business School, who led the research published this month in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
AN UNTRUTH TODAY, A TRUTH IN THE FUTURE?
While research on misinformation has traditionally focused on understanding how people are duped into mistaking lies for the truth, Helgason and her colleague Daniel Effron wanted to investigate cases where people recognised a statement was factually false but nonetheless judged it to be ethically acceptable.
They ran a mix of online and laboratory studies with about 3,600 participants, who were asked to make moral judgments on various forms of untruths.
In one experiment involving more than 400 MBA students from 59 countries, most believed that it was unacceptable to falsely claim financial modelling skills on a CV. But when asked to imagine that an applicant’s business school might offer a summer course on this very subject, their disapproval softened.
Helgason explains: “If the applicant could potentially learn financial modelling skills at some time in the future, then students didn’t think it was so unethical to be falsely claiming knowledge of these skills in the present, even if there was no guarantee (the learning) would happen.”
Unfortunately, she points out, people tend to overestimate both their abilities and the speed with which they can learn new things: “Our research shows that people think it’s not so bad to lie about having a skill they might have in the future, but if you combine that with people being really bad at knowing what skills they’ll have in the future, it becomes very dangerous."
"WHAT IF" CAN TURN LIES INTO TRUTHS
Adding “pre-factuals” – conditional if-then statements about what might happen in the future – also changed people’s perceptions of political statements they knew to be incorrect.
The false claim by a Democrat that gun violence kills 500 people a day in the United States – the real figure for 2020 was a quarter of that – was more likely to be judged broadly true when participants were asked to consider the pre-factual that deaths might reach this figure if Republicans loosened gun control laws.
The more someone agreed with the gist of the statement, namely that there are too many gun deaths, the less likely they were to regard the lie as unethical – and the more likely they were to state a willingness to share it on social media.
Republican-leaning participants were more inclined to shrug off former US president Donald Trump’s exaggerated claim about the US-China trade deficit if asked to read a pre-factual on how the deficit might increase.
It reaffirms the role of confirmation bias and motivated reasoning in how much leeway we give to untruths.
A combination of overconfidence and “what if” brainstorming could, in extremis, become a pathway to fraud.
The researchers cite the Theranos scandal as a possible example. Founder Elizabeth Holmes, who raised over US$700 million for a blood testing technology that never existed, famously declared: “We will fail over a thousand times till we get this thing to work but we will get it on the 1,001st time.”
That she believed her miracle technology would one day exist did not justify the lie that the technology currently existed. Extreme pre-factual thinking may have been her downfall.
Similarly, we should be alert to political figures whose manipulative stock-in-trade is the constant promise of a glittering future. An uncheckable future is a gift to the grifters, whether they are unscrupulous entrepreneurs or unprincipled politicians.