This post is based on a comment paper: “Honest People Tend to Use Less–Not More—Profanity:  Comment on Feldman et al.’s (2017) Study,” that appeared in Social Psychological and Personality Science 1-5 and was written by R. E. de Vries, B. E. Hilbig, Ingo Zettler, P. D. Dunlop, D. Holtrop, K. Lee, and M. C. Ashton. Why would honesty suddenly be important  with respect to decision making when I have largely ignored it in the past? You will have to figure that out for yourself. It reminded me that most of our decision making machinery is based on relative differences. We compare, but we are not so good at absolutes. Thus, when you get a relentless fearless liar, the relative differences are widened and this is likely to spread out what seems to be a reasonable decision.

The de Vries paper is a response to the conclusion of Feldman et al.’s (2017)  that profane individuals tend to be honest is most likely incorrect. De Vries and his colleagues argue that Feldman et al.’s conclusion is based on a commonly held but erroneous assumption that higher scores on Impression Management Scales, such as the Lie Scale, are associated with trait dishonesty. Based on evidence from studies that have investigated (1) self-other agreement on Impression Management Scales, (2) the relation of Impression Management Scales with personality variables, and (3) the relation of Impression Management Scales with objective measures of cheating, de Vries et al argue that high scores on Impression Management Scales are associated with high—instead of low—trait honesty when measured in low-stakes conditions.

De Vries et. al. suggest that the increased use of aggressive verbal language and profanities in online communication has been one of the most noteworthy and worrisome outcomes of the Internet era. Thus, the conclusion by Feldman that a higher rate of profanity use is associated with more honesty was highly newsworthy. Indeed, their conclusions may have strong real-life consequences. People who use profanities, both online and offline, may feel exonerated by the study because the use of profanities may simply show that their profane outbursts are an honest expression of their feelings. Political representatives may even be stimulated to increase their use of profanities hoping that it may increase the public’s perception of their integrity. Because of its newsworthiness and potential real life consequences, de Vries et. al. believe that the conclusion of a positive association between profanity use and honesty should be examined carefully. After doing so, de Vries et. al. conclude that: if anything, there is a negative association between profanity use and honesty.

The details of the careful examination are not included here. Suffice it to say that the science has a ways to go when studies seem to be split on whether a high score on a Lie Scale means you tend to lie less or tend to lie more.  De Vries et. al. call for a moratorium on the use of lie, impression management, and/or social desirability scales in low-stakes conditions as measures of dissimulation, deception, dishonesty, or faking. Those who have collected data with Impression Management Scales are best advised to treat them as somewhat valid indicators of a tendency to be virtuous, at least when the scales are administered in anonymous, low stakes conditions. If Lie and Impression Management Scales continue to be used as indicators of dishonesty—despite the evidence that they are actually somewhat predictive of higher honesty—then scientists and the public will continue to be misinformed about the relations between actual honesty and important real-world variables, such as the use of profanity.

“Honest People Tend to Use Less–Not More—Profanity:  Comment on Feldman et al.’s (2017) Study,”  R. E. de Vries, B. E. Hilbig, Ingo Zettler, P. D. Dunlop, D. Holtrop, K. Lee, and M. C. Ashton, Social Psychological and Personality Science 1-5.

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