NEW YORK – Science has an answer for hand-wringers wondering how there could be so much public lying, how the liars live with themselves, and why supporters of our public liars are willing to overlook it all. One explanation is that loyalty matters too, and when faced with a choice between lying and betrayal, many people consider lying the more upstanding option.
Or at least that was the upshot of a series of experiments that Cornell management professor Angus Hildreth and colleagues set up to explore the tension between honesty and loyalty. In different variations on the same theme, teams made up of fraternity brothers, random students or other volunteers were asked to solve a series of puzzles and word games. The better team members did, the more money the whole team made.
Subjects had the opportunity to lie about puzzles they hadn’t completed, and thus make more money.
What they didn’t know was that the researchers could tell when they were lying, either by secretly retrieving work sheets from the trash, or by including impossible puzzles so that any group claiming to solve them must be lying.
(The project itself required several forms of deceit on the part of the researchers, but surely it’s OK in the name of science.)
When asked to pledge loyalty to the group and told they were in competition and had to beat other groups, more people lied (around 60 percent). Those who pledged loyalty but were not prodded by competition committed the least lying (15 to 20 percent).
In a subsequent study, Hildreth and a colleague used a similar scenario and asked people to evaluate their own behavior. Those who lied (and benefited their team) rated themselves as more ethical than those who told the truth. But when asked to rate other people under the same scenario, people thought the liars were unethical, whether loyalty was a factor or not.
NYU psychologist Jonathan Haidt has argued that while everyone values fairness and honesty, conservatives care about loyalty more than liberals do. Hildreth said that everyone values loyalty to an extent, however. Surely most people across the political spectrum would be willing to lie to save someone, or themselves, from death or harm.
Though Hildreth and his colleagues used an interesting word choice in the title of their most recent paper, “When Loyalty Trumps Honesty,” he insisted the work is not a statement about U.S. politics. But any work on human nature might help shed light on what’s happening, and it’s easy to see how President Donald Trump has created the sense that his supporters are in pitched battle against elitists and “enemies of the people.” A sense of competition and loyalty could lead supporters to overlook his lies.
Trump may already know how this psychology works, but for the rest of us, the science can render it a little less baffling.
Science writer Faye Flam is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She has written for the Economist, the New York Times,The Washington Post, Psychology Today, Science and other publications.
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