Lie acceptability

When do people think it might be ok to lie? religionSusanna Robinson Ning and Angela M. Crossman from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York have just published the results of an interesting study of lie acceptability.

The authors start off with a good summary of the literature on lie acceptability, and age, gender, cultural and religious differences in attitudes to different types of lie. Different types of lie may be more or less acceptable, depending on the motivaton for telling them and the context in which they are told. Broadly, lies which are told for personal gain or to harm others – so-called ‘antisocial lies’ – are generally considered less acceptable than those told to help another or for politeness – ‘prosocial lies’.

Ning and Crossman set out to explore how perceptions of lie acceptability vary across situations and by different cultural or subcultural groups at a detailed level. They argue that:

These issues are important, as one’s perceptions of the acceptability of lies may relate to the frequency with which one lies and to the facility with which one lies (e.g., whether or not one provides obvious cues that give away deceptive attempts out of discomfort with the act of lying). (p.2131)

They authors also note that understanding how liars and deceived people feel about the acceptability of the particular lies may also be important once a liar has been found out: “perceptions of lie acceptability predict reactions to the discovery that one has been deceived (DePaulo et al., 2004), which could be relevant to issues such as relationship stability in the wake of such a discovery” (p.2131).

In this study, individuals from various different religious denominations, including 44% from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), 28% claiming to be athiest or agnostic, and 20% claiming to be non-LDS Christian, rated the acceptability of lies in 12 different scenarios in which types of lie and context were varied. There’s a lot in the results, but briefly:

  • Unsurprisingly, prosocial lies were considered by all to be more acceptable than anti-social lies.
  • “Lies told to strangers were generally considered more acceptable than were lies told to spouses” (p.2147)
  • “Women in this study tended to rate both self- and other-oriented lies as more acceptable than did men, particularly for lies told to strangers” (p.2148)
  • Lie acceptability decreased overall with age and “age was negatively associated with [acceptability of] lies told to avoid conflict in a spousal relationship, but was not related to perceptions of such lies told to a stranger” (p.2149)
  • “As predicted, LDS participants consistently rated lies as significantly less acceptable overall than did non-LDS participants, regardless of lie motivation, relationship category, or participant sex”. (p. 2149)

There are some important caveats, notably that the sample was biased towards females (77%) and was relatively young (mean age approximately 27 years). Furthermore, the manner of recruiting the LDS sample, via a church listserv (the others were recruited via a secular listserv), may have led to an increase in socially desirable responding. As the authors acknowledge, this study does little more than highlight some interesting areas for more detailed research.


Abstract below the fold

Photo credit: simpologist, Creative Commons License


Perceptions of lie acceptability vary as a function of the motivation for the lie, the relationship between deceiver and deceived, and the perceiver’s cultural background. The current study examines the relation between one cultural background—that is, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS)—and perceptions of lie acceptability, and whether this varies as a function of lie and rater characteristics. Participants rated lie acceptability in 12 scenarios varying lie motivation and lie recipient. Overall, the LDS group rated lies as less acceptable than did the non-LDS group, and lie acceptability varied according to lie motivation and lie recipient. Participant age was negatively correlated with lie acceptability. Implications of the findings and directions for future research are discussed.

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