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Honesty has long been thought of as a simple, binary issue—someone is either being truthful or is lying. But that is too simplistic, write Carnegie Mellon’s Binyamin Cooper and Taya Cohen, Northwestern postdoctoral scholar Elizabeth Huppert, Chicago Booth’s Emma Levine, and Wake Forest’s William Fleeson. A new framework is needed for researching and developing our understanding of the issue, the researchers say.
In the field of organizational behavior, “the dominant standard people have studied and that people have internalized is ‘don’t lie,’” says Levine. But ancient philosophers, among others, recognized more nuance in the issue. For example, sometimes people are fine with telling white lies, which might include omission or misleading statements. “If we look at why misinformation is out in the world, why people struggle with truth telling and difficult conversations, and some of the more naturalistic decisions people face about honesty, you see that it’s way more complicated,” Levine adds.
The researchers analyzed 169 empirical articles published between 2000 and 2021 in 15 journals across the disciplines of management, organizational behavior, applied psychology, and business ethics, ultimately developing an integrative framework for the study of honest behavior. It includes paradigms that can help explain when and why people are willing to express something less than the full truth.
They find that honesty can be classified into four groups: (1) honest content, the accuracy of the content communicators share, (2) honest disclosure, the amount and depth of disclosure by the communicators, (3) honest delivery, the way communicators share or disclose information, and (4) intellectual honesty, the way communicators develop, validate, and update their beliefs.
“For behavior to be fully honest,” the researchers write, “we contend that the communicator must seek the truth, speak the truth, and foster understanding of the truth in others.”
An honesty checklist
This last element—fostering understanding of the truth in others—is missing from existing research, Levine says, noting that without this as part of the commonly held definition of honesty, people often engage in a sort of guilt-free dishonesty through misleading information. There are words for this type of dishonesty: paltering is saying something technically true with the intention of misleading others, while cherry-picking is choosing one piece of accurate data or one quote that is misleading when reported out of context. More often than not, people engage in these forms of dishonesty intentionally, to get the outcome they want without feeling like liars, according to the research.
Studying honesty as a binary is the easiest way to research the subject, but it’s “the lowest hanging fruit,” Levine says. She and her coresearchers are hoping to not only generate more findings on the topic but also help the broader public think about behaviors that knowingly cause misunderstanding and to “raise the bar for the standard that people hold themselves to.”
Binyamin Cooper, Taya Cohen, Elizabeth Huppert, Emma Levine, and William Fleeson, “Honest Behavior: Truth-Seeking, Belief-Speaking, and Fostering Understanding of the Truth in Others,” Academy of Management Annals, March 2023.
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