Why do almost all people tell the truth in ordinary everyday
life? […] The reason is, firstly because it is easier; for
lying demands invention, dissimulation, and a good memory
(Friedrich Nietzsche, page 54, Human, All Too Human:  A Book for Free Spirits, 1878)

“I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job,” Mr. Trump said, according to the document, which was read to The New York Times by an American official. “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”

Mr. Trump added, “I’m not under investigation.”  (Pres. Donald Trump, discussion with Russian diplomats, May 10, 2017).

This post is based on the paper:  ” ‘ I can see it in your eyes’: Biased Processing and Increased Arousal in Dishonest Responses,” authored by Guy Hochman, Andreas Glockner, Susan Fiedler, and Shahar Ayal, that appeared in the  Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, December 2015.

In spite of what Nietzsche suggested, dishonesty abounds in everyday life.  Mazar et al. asked participants to solve 20 adding-to-10 arithmetic problems under time pressure and paid them based on the number of problems they solved correctly. Without the opportunity to cheat, participants were able to solve, on average, fewer than four problems. However, when they were given the chance to lie about their performance, participants claimed that they managed to solve about six problems, on average, correctly. Interestingly, dishonesty in these studies stemmed from the actions of many people who cheated by only a little bit. Because by only cheating to a small extent people forgo personal profit, it is likely that there are reasons for limiting dishonest behavior, which can be classified as having either internal (e.g., cognitive effort and experienced tension) or external (e.g., expected punishment) costs.

Meanwhile, social psychology suggests that people strive to maintain a positive self-image, value honesty and morality, and perceive themselves as highly moral . This apparent disparity between people’s unethical behavior and their desire to maintain a moral and positive
self-image creates ethical dissonance, which similar to classic cognitive dissonance leads to psychological distress that requires tension reduction mechanisms.  Barkan proposed the “pot calling the kettle black” phenomenon, where people compensate for their own misdeeds by judging others more harshly as a post hoc tension reduction mechanism that helps people to distance themselves from prior unethical behavior. (Note Pres Trump above.)

In this paper, the authors address these issues by conducting experiments using eye-tracking  and pupil dilation data on top of choice behavior. First, they measured cheating on the level of choice to capture behavior that could be due to both conscious (i.e., people being aware of the correct answer and intentionally lying) and unconscious (i.e., people not even being aware of the correct answer because of unconscious biased processing) cheating. Next, they examined differences in information search patterns and physiological arousal between trials with honest (See post Honesty for another angle.) versus dishonest responses to investigate the cognitive process underlying minor dishonest acts and particularly with the aim to tease apart conscious and unconscious sources for cheating. Eye-tracking allows information search patterns to be observed. Eye-tracking allows the locus of attention to be seen. Pupil dilation allows physiological arousal to be viewed. It can be a measure of deception, but it also can be an indication of a difficult choice or complicated problem.

According to self-maintenance theory, people notice their dishonest acts and thus experience ethical dissonance between their misconduct and their positive moral self. In this view, dishonesty is facilitated by justifications that redefine moral boundaries. By contrast, the bounded ethicality approach suggests that biased perception prevents people from becoming aware of their dishonesty. Hochman et al suggest that self-maintenance theory and bounded ethicality can be seen as two poles along the consciousness continuum (See post Are There Levels of Consciousness for a different view on consciousness.). At one extreme, the pure self-maintenance approach suggests that people are completely aware of their own unethical behavior. Because consciously engaging in dishonest acts poses a threat to the moral self, it results in ethical dissonance that requires different types of reduction mechanisms that facilitate and justify this behavior. At the other extreme, the pure bounded ethicality approach suggests that cheating behavior is exclusively driven by unconscious perception biases that do not allow dishonest acts to compromise people’s moral standards. The authors suggest that while self-maintenance and bounded ethicality seem at odds, they actually represent complementary, rather than opposing, accounts of the interplay between dishonesty and the moral self.  Because perception guides what visual information is presented to conscious awareness, these biased perception mechanisms can allow people to benefit from dishonest behavior without its associated dissonance.

The results of the experiments suggest that the information people take into account while making a decision is influenced by their desires and motivations.  They found increases in pupil diameter when participants made beneficial errors (i.e., chose the highest paying side when it was the wrong answer) that indicate dishonest behavior. The arousal results indicated that the decision to cheat is mainly made before information is presented. As a result, people experience a dissonance between the possibility of obtaining personal gain and the desire to maintain a positive self-image, but because of self-serving perception distortion mechanisms, they are not totally aware of this. Hochman et al noticed that physiological arousal did not decrease in response to cheating over the trials in this study. This suggests that the ethical dissonance was not diminished with repeated experience of dishonest responses. It seems that although our pre-emptive biases and motivated reasoning mechanisms work hard to create a reality that justifies selfish behavior, at a pre-consciousness level people still seem to “know” that their behavior is wrong.

The authors conclude that both self-maintenance theory and bounded ethicality serve as complementary accounts of how people resolve the conflict between their desire to increase gain and the desire to maintain a positive moral self. Arousal is increased in cheating responses, thus indicating some level of awareness, which is in line with the self-maintenance approach. At the same time, there is evidence for attentional biases that lead people to be less likely to become aware that their desired answers are wrong.