New research published by the American Psychological Association says that lying to someone to get the best of them in a financial negotiation could gain you more money, but you’re more likely to feel bad about it and be dissatisfied with the outcome than if you’d been honest.

Rutgers University’s Alex Van Zant and colleagues sought to see whether liars were more or less satisfied with the result of a negotiation when they lied and got away with it.

“Although many people assume that deception elicits feelings of guilt, prior research found that getting away with unethical behavior leaves people feeling more satisfied with themselves,” says Van Zant. “But that research had primarily focused on private unethical behavior, like cheating on exams or taxes. It was unclear whether those findings might extend to telling a lie to someone whom the lie hurts directly, like a negotiation counterpart.”

The findings were reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The researcher selected 982 online participants and divided them into 491 pairs of sellers and purchasers to see if individuals who lie to others experience “deceiver’s guilt” or “deceiver’s thrill.” Each had to haggle over the purchase of an old laptop with an approximate value of $5000. In a dishonest situation, the sellers were given the opportunity to deceive – they were informed that the laptop had a faulty graphics card but that the customer didn’t know about it and would not find out. In a control scenario, both the vendors and the purchasers were aware of the damaged graphics card.

Both buyers and sellers were given incentives to negotiate the best price possible. For every $250 more than $3,750 that the sellers were able to get in the selling price negotiation, they were eligible for a little cash incentive. In the meanwhile, the purchasers were provided with a cash reward for each $250 less than $3,750 that they paid for the laptop.

After the buyers and sellers agreed on a price, the sellers answered questions regarding how they felt about the sale (e.g., “I am satisfied with my outcome in this negotiation” and “This negotiation made me feel more competent as a negotiator,”), if they felt guilty, and their overall mood.

74% of vendors lied to their partners. The sellers who opted to lie were less content with the negotiation, felt more guilt, and felt less satisfied overall than sellers in the control condition who did not have the option to lie. This finding is consistent with the deceivers’ guilt theory. Also, sellers who could have lied, but didn’t, were happier than sellers in the control condition.

Scientists were also curious in how vendors felt about the results depending on whether they had a high or low motivation to deceive. So, for half of the pairs, the cash incentive was $1.25 for every $250 over $3750, while for the other half, the incentive was only 10 cents per $250. According to the study’s findings, sellers who lied to get a larger incentive felt more guilty than those who lied to receive a lower incentive.

In a subsequent experiment, researchers discovered that vendors who lied to their customers opted for a different partner when given the opportunity to bargain again.

Regardless of whether or not a person has a strong moral or ethical code, the researchers found these effects to be constant. People who said they were very empathetic and who said that being just, compassionate, and fair was very important to them were just as likely to feel guilty and unhappy after lying as those who said these things were less important to them.

“Scholars have long known the risks of detected dishonesty,” Van Zant adds. “Our investigation breaks new ground by showing how even undetected dishonesty harms negotiators. It leads negotiators to feel guilty, undermines their satisfaction, and reduces their interest in continuing a relationship with counterparts. Considering dishonesty’s psychological and relational costs, living with the costs of dishonesty might be psychologically more challenging than forgoing its benefits.”

Van Zant says that more research could be done to see if these results hold for different kinds of lies.

“Our studies focused on lies that involve either misrepresenting or concealing information for personal gain. But sometimes people might lie about their emotions, for example strategically exaggerating anger to intimidate a negotiation counterpart,” he adds. “Other times, they might even tell prosocial lies to benefit a counterpart. Some lies are likely to be easier for negotiators to rationalize than others. Perhaps these lies would not elicit nearly as much guilt as the lies we examined in our studies.”

Image Credit: Getty


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