The surprising truth about lies

Consumers may give marketers more than they bargain for in some surprising twists of the truth.

Image of truth spelt out

Businesses which mislead their customers by marketing “miracle” diet pills or burying important conditions in the fine print are rarely far from the headlines. By contrast, consumers who lie to businesses tend to fly under the radar.

Yet, according to two marketing scholars at the University of Sydney Business School, Elizabeth Cowley and Christina Anthony, the phenomenon of consumer deception may be more common than we think. “Existing research shows us that people tell an average of one to two lies per day,” says Dr Anthony, “so we know it is common to lie.”

Psychologists have focused much of their attention to date on studying the lies we tell to manage social relationships, she says, such as informing a coworker we feel fine when we actually feel the opposite. But less work has been done on lies told for personal gain, especially during interactions with businesses. “That could include lying as part of an insurance claim or demanding a refund that you aren’t entitled to,” she explains. “In these kinds of situations, where one party has private information and the other can’t verify if it’s true, there is the prospect of lying.”

To better understand the phenomenon, the researchers ran a series of experiments in which participants were given the opportunity to lie to a service provider in order to receive a material reward. In one experiment, participants were asked to answer some questions about a consumer product. They were then told that some of them would receive the product as a prize. To be eligible for the prize, participants were informed that their answers to the questions must match some pre-determined criteria.

Although half of the participants’ responses did not match the specified eligibility criteria, they were incorrectly informed by the computer that they were eligible for a prize. This gave participants a choice to make: to correct the error and miss out, or lie and get the prize.

Surprisingly, around 50 per cent of participants were prepared to lie in order to claim the prize. “It suggests that deception is a very accepted part of the exchange process,” says Professor Cowley. “It makes you wonder if we should add ‘marketers beware’ to the old saying of ‘buyer beware’,” adds Dr Anthony.

More evidence for the widespread nature of consumer deception came in a later study where participants were asked to recall real-life experiences of lying to businesses. From buying concession tickets at Disneyland under false pretences to deceptively claiming there are better deals elsewhere during a negotiation, the participants were able to recall a multitude of examples for the researchers. “It wasn’t as though they struggled to remember a time they had ever lied to a service provider,” says Professor Cowley.

The most significant finding of the research, however, concerns what happens to consumers’ satisfaction levels when they do tell a lie. Across the series of experiments, participants who lied and received what they wanted from the interaction – the prize – were more satisfied with the outcome than truth tellers. Conversely, when the liars did not end up receiving the reward, they went away more dissatisfied with the outcome of the interaction. The researchers had found that lying polarises consumers’ satisfaction levels.

According to Dr Anthony, the result can be explained by the fact that lying is cognitively demanding, which makes it harder to follow the subtle cues of a conversation with a service provider. “When people lie, they have to think about what they’re saying and make sure they’re not leaking any signs that they are not telling the truth,” she says. “And because people are so preoccupied with executing the lie, we found that this interferes with their ability to monitor the reactions of the listener. Therefore, liars cannot update their expectations about the likely outcome, and as a result, are more surprised about the final outcome than truth tellers. The surprise causes a stronger reaction.”

The finding has implications for the way that businesses manage their interactions with customers and train their staff, says Dr Anthony. “Because a successful lie may increase satisfaction with a transaction, if the marketer does not have too much to lose it may be wise to let the consumer get away with the lie,” she says.

Professor Cowley adds another reason businesses might want to avoid pursuing deceptive consumers too zealously. “If you’re too focused on trying to catch liars it means you are going to suspect some truth tellers,” she says. “This may leave consumers who act honestly feeling overly scrutinised and angry that they have not been given the benefit of the doubt. Therefore businesses need to carefully manage the questioning process when interacting with consumers.”

The studies by the two researchers, which will be published this year in the Journal of Consumer Research, are part of a wider body of work aimed at investigating the consequences of lying.

In another project, Professor Cowley and Dr Anthony investigated what happens when people try to recall the lies they have told. The researchers found that lies are more difficult to remember than truths because two separate renditions of the event compete at retrieval. Their work also has implications for honest people who consider telling a lie and then dismiss the idea: preliminary evidence from an ongoing experiment suggests that even contemplating a lie may compromise one’s recollection of the truth.

“Our memory seems to be less accurate if we merely consider lying,” says Professor Cowley. “This happens because the untold lie, much like the executed lie, interferes with memory for what was said. So the old adage that ‘honesty is the best policy’ is perhaps only true if you didn’t even think about lying.”

In addition, they compared two different types of deception: lies of commission (such as explicitly claiming that you did not use a product when asking for a refund) and lies of omission (such as failing to mention that you did use a product).

The results of this study suggest that telling a lie of commission may give liars a better chance of getting away with their deception than a lie of omission, despite the fact that telling a “baldfaced lie” is widely considered to be more morally reprehensible.

“If the liar says the lie out loud versus simply omitting a piece of information, there are more perceptual qualities, such as the sound of one’s voice, to later help remember what was said,” explains Professor Cowley. “But with a lie by omission, because you didn’t say it, but merely alluded to it, there is less detail to aid retrieval.”

Since starting their research in the field, the two scholars have also unearthed another surprising consequence of thinking about lying: it can cause your academic colleagues to view you in an entirely new light. “People think that you are what you study,” says Professor Cowley. “But the truth is that people often study what they are not good at,” adds Dr Anthony.