In business and in our personal lives, white lies have a way of easing into common conversation—when you cover for a late coworker in front of the boss, or tell your friend to definitely buy those, em, overalls, they’re really cute! For the most part, these types of subtle mistruths may seem to have little consequence, but what about when there is more than goodwill at stake? In a study published in the journal Psychological Science, researchers set out to answer exactly that question. In a study that tested 178 college-age adults when money was at stake, the researchers found that, instead of being motivated by individual greed, more often the lies people told were an attempt to achieve equity.
The show this, the researchers worked in three phases. Initially, subjects entered a room together and participated in a random coin toss. Through this, some won $20, and the others won nothing. Those who won money were instructed to put them in a pouch around their necks, through which the cash was visible to other participants. In the next phase of the study, participants basically played a competitive game of Boggle—they were asked to create words from a collection of seven letters, and had just a minute to do so. After the word game, in the third phase of the study, the researchers assigned participants “graders” to go over the words they’d formed using a Scrabble dictionary, and reward them for every 10 words they got right. (The graders were each given $8 to distribute, and were allowed to keep whatever they didn’t dole out.) When the participants dropped off their lists of words, they also left their money pouches, meaning that the graders were certain of how much they’d already earned.
Here’s where it gets interesting. The graders who hadn’t earned money in the first round were more likely to lie on behalf of fellow participants who also hadn’t won any money yet—that is, they gave them credit for non-words, and therefore rewarded them with cash. When the “poor” graders came up against “rich” participants, however—those who had $20 already stashed in their money pouches—the graders were increasingly likely to lie about words they had actually gotten right.
A similar trend was evident in the other direction as well. Those graders who already won money generally stuck to the rules when grading fellow “rich” participants, but when they were scoring for the “poor” subjects whose money pouches were empty, they were more likely to allow some wiggle room—lying about which were real words and therefore securing monetary rewards for those participants.
So what does this mean (apart from the fact that bribing the dictionary holder before a game of Scrabble might help your chances)? According to the researchers, even when doing so jeopardizes our own financial gain, generally speaking the emotional reactions to perceived inequity will ultimately drive us to level the playing field. As the researchers write, “…people engage in dishonest behavior to relieve emotional stress from wealth-based inequity.” That is, it’s better to be out a few bucks than to feel plagued by guilt or envy. The real world application of this, they say, is that inequity in the workplace may actually drive dishonesty—and not always in a nefarious way. Lying to sabotage a colleague is an obvious example of dangerous office dishonesty, but it could go the other way too, they point out. Covering up for an employee’s poor performance can also have its costs.