Acting Dishonestly Impairs Our Ability To Read Other People’s Emotions


By guest blogger Rhi Willmot

Can a lie still be harmful if it’s never found out? New research on the relationship between dishonesty and social understanding may unsettle the fibbers amongst us. In a multi-study investigation with a total of 2,588 participants, scientists have found Pinocchio isn’t the only one to experience a few personal problems after telling lies.

In the recent paper, published by the Journal of Experimental Psychology, Julia Lee from the University of Michigan and colleagues examined whether acts of dishonesty impair our “empathic accuracy,” the ability to detect the emotions of others. Behaving untruthfully, the authors theorised, may cause us to withdraw from other people, and in turn make social interaction more difficult. If this is the case, dishonesty could have significant implications for how we maintain relationships, resolve conflict, and collaborate at work.

In an initial pair of studies, the researchers asked 259 adults how often they committed dishonest acts in the workplace, and gave another group of 150 individuals the opportunity to cheat on a computer game. All participants then completed the “Reading the Eyes in the Mind” task, to measure their empathic accuracy. This involved viewing video clips of the region surrounding actors’ eyes, and selecting one of four possible emotions to best describe the actor’s mental state. In both studies, greater dishonesty was associated with a greater number of inaccurate selections.

But correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation. So to find out whether dishonesty actively reduces empathic accuracy, the research team then offered a sample of university students the chance to win real money in a die-throwing game. Participants were asked to predict which side of the die would show a higher number, with correct guesses exchangeable for more cash. However, while control participants gave their predictions at the start of the game, a second group did so once the die had been rolled — offering them the chance to cheat.

Compared to control participants, the second group, or “likely-cheating condition”, reported more correct guesses, suggesting they capitalised on the opportunity for deceit. They also performed worse on the Reading the Eyes in the Mind task, indicating that this dishonesty made it more difficult for them to read others’ emotions. In a subsequent game, where participants could earn $2 for sending an untruthful message to an anonymous partner or $0.50 for telling the truth, those in the likely-cheating condition were also more likely to lie, which suggests their original dishonesty prompted a further unscrupulous act.

Why might dishonesty impair our emotion-reading powers? One explanation is that it reduces our “relational self-construal” — the extent to which we think of ourselves in terms of social connections (e.g. “I am a sister”). Such social distancing could help us to justify immoral acts, because it reduces the degree of attention and concern we devote to others — a literal form of avoiding “looking someone in the eye”. Indeed, a fifth experiment using the same die-throwing and empathic accuracy tasks demonstrated that “likely-cheaters” described themselves using fewer social phrases than the control group, which accounted for the relationship between dishonesty and emotional-reading.

It also seems some people may be more susceptible to these effects than others. In a final experiment, Lee and colleagues looked at “vagal reactivity”— a measure of heart rate associated with self-regulation and social sensitivity. Those with high vagal reactivity didn’t display reduced empathic accuracy after lying, whilst those with low reactivity did experience the impairing effect. The authors suggest that people who are more socially sensitive to begin with are still able to read the emotions of others even after dishonest behaviour, while those with less reactivity, and therefore less social sensitivity, are more vulnerable to the damaging effects of dishonesty.

It remains unclear how long the effects of dishonesty on empathic accuracy last, and it would also be interesting to explore whether dishonesty makes it harder to detect emotion when we can’t see other people, but can hear their voice, or see words they write online. This might shed light on dishonest actions which touch many of us, such as the spreading of fake news.

Regardless of whether dishonesty is detected by others, the evidence is clear. Cheating can have significant personal costs by reducing our general understanding of the feelings of others, and these are particularly severe for those who already find interpersonal interaction more difficult. So, socially-insensitive con artists – beware!

– The interpersonal costs of dishonesty: How dishonest behavior reduces individuals’ ability to read others’ emotions.

Post written by Rhi Willmot (@rhi_willmot) for BPS Research Digest. Rhi is a psychologist with an interest in wellbeing, and has explored how topics from positive psychology influence healthy lifestyle behaviour. As a keen runner, Rhi is also interested in the relationship between psychology and optimal performance. She has published internationally, and worked on a number of transdisciplinary programmes, including an initiative to reduce food waste via altering perceptions of “ugly” fruit and vegetables, and a project to enhance quality of life in deprived areas of Mexico.

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8 thoughts on “Acting Dishonestly Impairs Our Ability To Read Other People’s Emotions”

  1. It makes me think of people with sociopathic traits and how much more likely they are to lie.
    They already have impaired sensitivity to the emotions of others, so it would mean very little to them that it becomes worse when they lie.

  2. Compassion-focused therapy is something that can be practiced, so as to help us all develop our ability to have compassion both for ourselves and others.

  3. Having been on the year of a lie, I found that I lost my identity as I didn’t know who I was anymore. I thought that I was this person who lived this life but am I really this person? If this person had been truthful to me, would my life be different now? Would I still have the same values and beliefs? When it first happened, I went through an identity crisis. I am alone in this world so full of people, because there is no one I can trust or rely on, because how do I know that the relationship is real and not just another lie?

    1. Try – having been on the receiving end of a lie…. (it wouldn’t let me edit comment)

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