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6 Reasons Why People

Are Dishonest
By Vintage Brazen • November 21, 2008

It seems some people can’t help but lie, cheat and

steal their way through life. One author explores
by Jun Loayza

I feel that I am an honest person: I tell the truth, do not cheat and I try
to be the best person that I can be. When I read about what JP Hayes
did this week in the PGA Tour, I asked myself the question, “Would I
have done the same thing?” Hayes accidentally used an illegal ball
for only two shots of his qualifying round. He didn’t turn himself in at
the tournament; rather, he notified judges after he got back to his
hotel. No one would have found out, yet he disqualified himself. Why?

I thought about this for a while and found that people are dishonest
because of the following reasons or influences:

1. Laziness
Lazy people like to take the easy way out. Just think back to your high
school days and the amount of cheating that went on. You had
friends, girls (or guys), sports and TV to think about; who actually had
the time to study? People who are unmotivated and want things to
come easy will take the dishonesty route.

2. Don’t have the skills

People who don’t have the skills need to cheat to get ahead or keep
up with the rest. We see this all the time in sports: baseball players
take steroids, China uses 13-year-olds for the Olympics and football
coaches tape opponents’ practices. It must be devastating to devote
your entire life to a sport, only to find that you naturally just can’t
measure up to your competitors. Instead of being true themselves,
these people choose to cheat because of a lust for fortune and fame.

3. Peer pressure
My Dad once told me, “Tell me who you hang out with, and I’ll tell
you who you are.” These words have resonated with me throughout
my life, and I have surrounded myself with people who are honest,
motivated and intelligent. But what about people who grew up with
dishonest friends? Is it their fault that they’re dishonest as well? I am
one who promotes that an individual is ultimately responsible for his or
her own decisions, but I do feel that we are a product of our
surroundings. Peer pressure can make a weak individual do
dishonest things.

4. Greed
If JP Hayes had cheated, he would have been a victim of greed. He
has money, fame and is an accomplished golf professional. He
doesn’t need the money at all, and not making it into the tournament
would not have been the end of the world. However, some people are
greedy and want to make as much money as they can. They crave the
attention and want to be in the limelight.

5. Financial situation
When you’re broke, you think of any way to make money. If you have
to commit dishonest action to make money, then you do it because of
necessity. Well, I shouldn’t say “necessity,” because there are always
ways to survive financially in an honest way. These people just
choose dishonesty because they want the easy way out.

6. Confused morals
If you’re brought up by dishonest parents, then you have a high
chance of being dishonest as well. I had a friend from UCLA who
cheated his way through his entire life:

 He lied on his UCLA

https://www.brazen.com/blog/archive/lifestyle-design/6-reasons-why-people-are-dishonest/May 26,


By: Scott Wiltermuth, David Newman, and Medha Raj
Lying has its benefits. It allows people to feel better about themselves, to make themselves look
better in others’ eyes, and to maintain good relationships. At same time, lying can also create
problems. Lying can be cognitively depleting, it can increase the risk that people will be
punished, it can threaten people’s self-worth by preventing them from seeing themselves as
“good” people, and it can generally erode trust in society.
How do we know whether lying will generate positive consequences, negative consequences, or
a mix of both? In our recent review article, we suggested that paying attention to why people tell
lies can allow people to forecast the consequences of those lies. We examined specifically how
lying out of concern for others, out of the desire for material gain, and out of the desire to
maintain a positive self-concept can yield sometimes surprising positive and negative
consequences that relate directly to the desires motivating the lies.
Lies Motivated By Compassion
Because lying can create problems for the liar and being honest allows people to feel good
about themselves, most of us tell the truth in most of our interactions. When we decide to lie, we
privilege some other value over honesty. The value is often compassion, as people lie more
about their feelings than about anything else. When people misrepresent how positively they
feel about another person or something dear to another person, they build a connection with
that person and avoid hurting that person’s feelings. As Levine and Schweitzer (2013, 2015)
have found, those who tell prosocial lies are often viewed as more trustworthy and more moral
than are people who tell harsh truths. Moreover, these prosocial lies let us form larger social
networks than we could otherwise maintain. In contrast, lies not motivated by compassion
constrain the size of social networks.
However, not all prosocial lying driven by compassion yields benefits. People who receive
overly positive feedback about their abilities are susceptible to thinking they will succeed in
enterprises with very low chances of success and may therefore launch ill-advised ventures.
Lies Motivated By Desire for Material Gain
Desire for material gain also motivates people to lie. When this desire motivates lying, the
consequences are likely to be negative – not only for the person caught trying to deceive others
but for other people. When people lie out of self-interest, their deceptive behavior becomes a
social norm. Lying is socially contagious in that when people see the precedent that dishonesty
is appropriate, they are more likely to lie themselves. However, not all lying is contagious.
Although people emulate the dishonesty of those whom they consider to be in their “in-group,”
they become less likely to lie when they observe out-group members being dishonest (Gino,
Ayal, & Ariely, 2009).
Not everyone will judge harshly people who lie out of desire for material gain. In some
organizations, people will reward such deception because it can benefit colleagues and clients.
As Pierce and Snyder (in press) demonstrated, employees who lie on behalf of customers are
rewarded with greater financial gain and lower risk of termination. Their willingness to lie
becomes social currency coveted by those who stand to benefit from their dishonesty.
One factor that prevents people from lying for personal gain is the need/desire to see oneself as
a moral person. Lying motivates people to rationalize and justify their lies to themselves, so that
they may continue to see themselves as good. When people morally disengage from the
situation by rationalizing their behavior, they set themselves up to lie more in the future because
they have already found a way to justify dishonesty. Resultantly deception of one type can lead
to other forms of deception. For example, people who were asked to wear counterfeit
sunglasses came to feel as though they were inauthentic. Consequently, these people became
more likely than those in a control condition to over-report their performances on subsequent
tasks to earn money. Small initial lies may therefore yield escalating forms of dishonesty, which
is concerning because monitors have more difficulty noticing and policing a slow erosion of
ethics compared to abrupt moral degradation.
Dishonesty motivated by desire for personal gain can also lead people to forget the rules that
are intended to govern their behavior. As Shu and Gino (2012) have shown, people who lie will
sometimes forget rules about lying while remembering other sorts of details. Additionally, liars
may present themselves as virtuous by condemning others for the same types of deception that
they themselves perpetrated.
Fortunately, self-interested deception does not always result in further deception. People will
sometimes morally compensate for past dishonesty through prosocial actions or justifications for
their behavior (e.g. Jordan, Mullen, Murnighan, 2011).
Desire to Maintain Positive Self-Concept
People sometimes lie to themselves or others out of a need to see themselves positively. These
efforts are sometimes successful, as people often experience greater positive emotions when
exaggerating their intelligence or skill to themselves or others. As Ruedy, Moore, Gino, and
Schweitzer (2013) have shown, people may also experience a duper’s delight or cheater’s high
when they feel they have gotten away with deception. Furthermore, because cheating takes
people out of a rule-following mindset, it can stimulate creativity by allowing them to combine
previously unconnected ideas (Gino & Wiltermuth, 2014).
Deception intended to bolster the ego is not costless. Liars driven by the desire to see
themselves positively can forget that their dishonesty contributed to their success.
Consequently, they may make misguided bets about their future performance (Chance, Norton,
Gino, & Ariely, 2011).
The consequences of lying are not as simple as they might seem. People often think that lies
breed contempt and guilt, but they do much more. They foster relationships, build trust, destroy
social networks, create social networks, make people more creative, and influence how often
other people lie. We have argued in our review article that understanding why people lie goes a
long way in predicting which of these consequences result from dishonesty.
Levine EE, Schweitzer ME: Are liars ethical? On the tension between benevolence and
honesty. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 2014, 53:107-117.
Levine EE, Schweitzer ME: Prosocial lies: When deception breeds trust. Organizational
Behavior and Human Decision Processes 2015, 126:88-106
Pierce L, Snyder JA: Unethical demand and employee turnover. Journal of Business
Ethics, forthcoming.
Shu L, Gino F: Sweeping dishonesty under the rug: How unethical actions lead to forgetting of
moral rules. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2012, 102:1164-1177.
Jordan J, Mullen E, Murnighan JK: Striving for the moral self: The effects of recalling past moral
actions on future moral behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 2011, 37:701-713.
Ruedy NE, Moore C, Gino F, Schweitzer ME: The cheater’s high: The unexpected affective
benefits of unethical behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2013, 105:531-548.
Chance Z, Norton M, Gino F, Ariely D: Temporal view of the costs and benefits of self-
deception. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 2011, 108:15655-15659.
Gino F, Wiltermuth SS: Evil genius? How dishonesty can lead to greater
creativity. Psychological Science 2014, 25:973-981
Scott S. Wiltermuth (wiltermu@usc.edu) is an associate professor of management and
organizations at the University of Southern California. He received his doctorate from Stanford
University. He studies ethics and morality.His research also investigates how interpersonal
dynamics, such as dominance and submissiveness, influence cooperation and coordination.
David T. Newman (dtnewman@usc.edu) is a doctoral student in management and organization
at the University of Southern California. He earned his B.A. in psychology from Yale University
and his J.D. from Harvard Law School. His research interests include business ethics, the
morality of technology, the pursuit of meaning, and the psychology of property and ownership.
Prior to entering the Ph.D. program, David worked for EthicalSystems.org, a non-profit
collaboration of researchers dedicated to the advancement of a systems approach to better
business practices.
Medha Raj (Medha.Raj.2018@marshall.usc.edu) is a doctoral student in Management and
Organizations at the University of Southern California. She earned her A.B. from Dartmouth
College, where she majored in Economics and minored in psychology. She studies
interpersonal interaction with a focus on prosocial tendencies and behaviors. In some of her
research, she studies the role of guilt-proneness, forgiveness, and prosocial lying in both
interpersonal and organizational contexts.
Why is this blog called Character & Context?
Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal
characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context
explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social
psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.