Study finds compassionate people can be more dishonest

New psychology research has found that compassion can sometimes be associated with dishonesty. The study, published May 11 in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, suggests that compassion can lead individuals to tell lies that are intended to benefit others.

“I have always been interested in prosocial lies because of their ethical ambiguity,” explained Matthew J. Lupoli of the University of California, San Diego, the study’s corresponding author. “The opportunity to tell a prosocial lie presents a conflict between two moral values: honesty, and harm prevention.

“Surprisingly, there has been little research investigating the factors that influence people’s behavior in the face of this conflict,” he told PsyPost. “Given that the emotion of compassion involves being motivated to alleviate others’ suffering, we thought that this emotion would be a likely candidate as a driver of prosocial lying.”

Lupoli and his colleagues conducted three separate experiments with about 1,000 participants in total. The study examined two types of prosocial lies: those that prevent emotional harm and those that promote positive outcomes for others.

In the first two experiments, the researchers investigated how compassion influenced giving feedback to the writer of a poorly written essay. In the third experiment, the researchers investigated how compassion influenced lies that procure financial gains for a charity. Across all the experiments, more compassionate people were more likely to lie.

“The most interesting part of this research for me is that it provides a view of compassion that people don’t typically consider,” Lupoli told PsyPost. “In two of our studies we investigate lies that are intended to benefit others — not lies that necessarily do help others. There are many situations in life where an individual might lie with genuine intention to help another, but honesty might be what is ultimately most beneficial for that person.”

“So we find that this emotion of compassion, which in many cases is socially beneficial, can actually lead to behavior that harms others. I think it’s important that people be aware of this so that compassion does not lead them astray when another’s well-being is at stake.”

But it would be a mistake to assume that compassion always increases prosocial lying. Under some circumstances it could have the opposite effect.

“As with all laboratory studies, we can’t claim that these effects hold for all people in all contexts,” Lupoli said. “There may be situations where compassion does not increase prosocial lying, or actually increases honesty. For example, if the benefits of honesty for another far exceed the benefits of lying, experiencing compassion might lead one to be more honest. We are currently looking into how compassion influences the valuation of others’ short-term and long-term goals to better understand the boundary conditions.”

The study, “Lying Because We Care: Compassion Increases Prosocial Lying“, was also co-authored by Lily Jampol and Christopher Oveis.