Trying to lead a more honest life is certainly an admirable ambition. But, a new study suggests that sometimes liars are actually perceived as more moral than those who always tell the truth.
In the paper, recently published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers conducted three experiments in which participants played different variations of a number-recitation game. If one partner recited the real number (and the second chose to believe it), the teller would get to take home a cash payoff of $1. But, if the teller acted dishonestly and purposefully told his or her partner the wrong number, the partner would get the dollar. So, while it wasn't exactly Vegas-worthy stakes, it's an interesting (and yes, kind of confusing) setup — and researchers used it to examine whether partners would tell a "selfish truth" or an "altruistic lie." Because everyone got the same instructions, all participants knew the payoff rules and used them to rate how ethical, empathetic, and truthful their partners were during the game.
The results showed that participants reliably judged the altruistic liars as more moral and caring than the selfish truth-tellers — but, they also identified the liars as less honest. The third experiment, however, had a "prosocial" condition in which the tellers received $2 no matter what — but if they lied, their partners also each received $1. These "prosocial" liars were rated as the most moral of all the liars. These findings support previous research indicating that our intentions matter more than almost anything else in our interactions with each other. Here, the study's authors explain, intentions mattered more than participants' basic sense of justice.
This all suggests that there are some situations in which fibbing is socially better for the lie-teller than being brutally honest. And, on the other side of the coin, just because someone's lying to you, that person is not necessarily trying to be a big meanie. Maybe they just want to make you a whole dollar richer.