Motivation and emotion/Book/2022/Honesty motivation

Honesty motivation:
What motivates honesty?


Figure 1. You see someone drop their wallet. Do you return it or pocket the money for yourself?

Are you an honest person? Imagine you are walking down a busy street and find a wallet on the ground with cash and ID with a clear address. Do you act honestly and drop the wallet off at the owners[grammar?] address or do you act dishonestly and take the money[grammar?]. An honest person is expected to return the wallet to its rightful owner, but how do we come to this conclusion? Perhaps this person returning the wallet is doing so out of fear of getting caught and punished for keeping it or perhaps they were expecting a finders[grammar?] fee for returning it. Here we[who?] discuss the multiple motivations of honesty and how they affect the behaviours of people.

Honesty is an integral part of building trust, which is fundamental for the effective functioning of social interactions as well as society as a whole (Ścigała, Schild & Zettler, 2020). Trust and honesty have been found to be related to many societal outcomes such as lower corruption perception, higher economic growth and more efficient judicial systems (Ścigała et al., 2020). Honesty is generally a valued part of society with people holding strong beliefs about their morality (Azar & Applebaum, 2020) and is undermined when people cheat, lie or otherwise behave dishonestly (Azar & Applebaum, 2020).

Dishonesty disrupts many economic activities with insurance companies in the U.S reporting that their customers make 24 billion dollars of fraudulent claims of property loss annually and U.S. retailers claiming to lose 16 billion dollars a year because of customers who buy clothes, wear them and return the used clothes for a full refund (Mazar, Amir & Ariely, 2008). The largest contribution to dishonesty comes from employee theft and fraud that has been estimated at $600 billion a year in the U.S. alone (Mazar et al., 2008).

Focus questions:
  • What is honesty?
  • Why do people act honestly?
  • What are the benefits and consequences of being honest?

What is honesty?Edit

Honesty is a trait which involves communicating and acting truthfully with fairness. Simply put, honesty means stating facts and views as best one truly believes them to be (Evans & Lee, 2013). It involves both honesty to oneself, to others and about ones[grammar?] motives and inner reality however there is not one specific motive that is required for a person to be motivated in an honest way (Miller, 2020). Honesty is a very important element in interpersonal relationships, particular intimate relationships and the social perception of dishonesty can seriously undermine judgements of likeability and social attraction, leading to distrust (Evans & Lee, 2013).

The motivation to be honest in a situation is not black or white with some people promoting honesty for self-serving reasons like making a good impression on others, not getting in trouble with the police, or increasing one’s rewards in the afterlife (Miller, 2020). This raises questions for the honesty motivation of people who do not lie, cheat or steal only because they know they will get caught and punished rather than because they know it is wrong (Miller, 2020). A motive of punishment avoidance is not going to ensure that a person will not act dishonestly in cases when they know or believe that they can get away with it undetected (Miller, 2020).

Table 1. Honesty pertains the behaviour in the following ways:

Action Honest Behaviour
Lying The honest person is disposed to reliably tell the truth, when appropriate for good moral reasons.
Stealing The honest person is disposed to reliably respect the property of others for good moral reasons.
Cheating The honest person is disposed to reliably follow the relevant rules in a situation when they are fair and appropriate and when there are good moral reasons to do so.
Promise-breaking The honest person is disposed to reliably keep reasonable promises when appropriate for good moral reasons.
Misleading The honest person is disposed to reliably avoid misleading by giving a sufficient presentation of the relevant facts when appropriate for good moral reasons.

Societal normsEdit

Theories of honesty argue that many people are either honest, self-deceptively bend rules or lie gradually to an extent that is compatible with maintaining an honest self-image (Gächter & Schulz, 2016). As part of socialisation, people internalise the norms and values of their society which serve as an internal benchmark against which a person compares their behaviour (Mazar et al., 2008). When complying with the internal values, there are positive rewards, whereas non compliance leads to negative rewards such as punishments (Mazar et al., 2008). The extent to which people follow norms depends on how prevalent norm violations are (Gächter & Schulz, 2016).


Figure 2. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

When applying this concept to the context of honesty, it is proposed that a major way in which the internal reward system exerts control over behaviour is by influencing a person's self-concept, that is, the way individuals view and perceive themselves (Mazar et al., 2008). The influence of dishonest behaviour on the self-concept will most likely depend on the particular action, its symbolic value, its context, and its plasticity (Mazar et al., 2008). If cheating is pervasive in society and is seen to go unpunished, people might then view dishonesty in certain everyday affairs as justifiable without jeopardising their self-concept of being honest (Gächter & Schulz, 2016).

Maslow's hierarchy of needsEdit

The desire to be honest to fit in with the societal norms can be explained using Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and the needs for love and belonging. People crave to feel like they belong in a group (Maslow, 1943) and will ensure they are following the rules of their society to do so.

Questions to consider:

  • Are there right or wrong reasons for being honest?
  • Does being dishonest make you a bad person?

Honest societyEdit

If honesty and trust are crucial for a society to thrive, why do people act dishonestly? A fundamental part of answering this question is uncovering why people lie, cheat or otherwise act dishonestly. Lying is more prevalent than first imagined and can manifest itself in different ways (Gonza & Bull, 2001). Although lying is publicly condemned, it is practised frequently by almost everyone for a variety of reasons during everyday life (Gonza & Bull, 2001) with both social risks and benefits (Talwar & Crossman, 2011). Early lying has been argued to be normative and reflects children's emerging cognitive and social development. Children are seen to lie to preserve self-interests as well as for the benefits of others (Talwar & Crossman, 2011).

Lying motivations are broadly categorised as self-centred (DePaulo, Ansfield, Kirkendol & Boden, 2004) or other centred (DePaulo, Kashy, Kirkendol, Wyer & Epstein, 1996). Self-centred lies serve to primarily benefit the liar, for example, individuals may lie to receive a reward, avoid punishment, to heighten one’s self-presentation, or even protect one’s self from physical retaliation from another person (DePaulo et al., 2004).

Economic model of rational and selfish behaviourEdit

The standard economic model of rational and selfish behaviour contains the belief that people carry out dishonest acts consciously and deliberately by trading off the expected external benefits and costs of the dishonest act (Mazar et al., 2008).

Example of this perspective

A person driving past a petrol station would consider the following three aspects:

  1. The expected amount of cash they could gain from robbing the place
  2. The probability of being caught
  3. The magnitude of punishment if caught for the act

On the basis of these inputs, people reach a decision that maximises their interests (Mazar et al., 2008). According to this perspective, people are honest or dishonest only to the extent that the planned trade-off favours a particular action (Mazar et al., 2008).

Is honesty dependent on society and culture?

The motivation to be honest is dependent on the value of honesty held by the society and cultures. A study set out to examine six types of lies among children across three distinct cultural environments. The study included children from rural Samoa, urban China and urban United States who evaluated six types of lies arranged along a cost-benefit assessment scale factoring both the lie teller and the lie recipient (Guo & Rochat, 2022).

They concluded that for a child to produce both antisocial and prosocial lies, it depends on a cost-benefit analysis of both the lie teller and the lie recipient (Guo & Rochat, 2022). This analysis varies depending on age, type of lie, and the child's cultural environment. In this study it was found that in general, Somoan children tended to rate lies more negatively and were less differential in their evaluation of the different types of lies compared to both their Chinese and U.S counterparts (Guo & Rochat, 2022).

Truth be toldEdit

Do you remember the first time you were dishonest? Chances are you started telling lies before you can even remember.  The first level of primary lies emerge around 2-3 years of age when children begin to be able to deliberately make factually untrue statements however at this age they do not take into the consideration the mental state of the listener (Evans & Lee, 2013). Secondary lies emerge around the age of 4 years and require children to understand that the listener does not know the true state of affairs and are therefore susceptible to lies (Evans & Lee, 2013). Around 7-8 years, children begin to reach tertiary lies where they are able to conceal their lies by maintaining consistency between their initial lie and follow-up statements (Evans & Lee, 2013). Although children of different ages may tell similarly successful white lies, the underlying social-cognitive explanations may be qualitatively different (Evans & Lee, 2013). With age, children learn about the social norms that promote honesty while encouraging occasional prosocial lie-telling (Talwar & Crossman, 2011).

Figure 3. Children begin to be dishonest around 2 - 3 years of age.

A major socialisation task for children is to acquire the etiquette of their culture, the customers or rules governing behaviours regarded as appropriate in various social settings (Talwar & Lee, 2002). From a young age, children are taught explicitly or implicitly how to behave when faced with specific social settings in order to appear well mannered or polite to others (Talwar & Lee, 2002). Although conflicting with the teachings of honesty, concealing true feelings and opinions about others in some social situations is an aspect of etiquette in which children must adhere from (Talwar & Lee, 2002). Examples of this include teaching children not to stare or be rude in the case of someone with unusual appearance, [grammar?] they are also taught to express gratitude in the scenario of receiving an unwanted gift (Talwar & Lee, 2002).

Case study

Olivia is 10 years old and has been given a book for her birthday. Olivia doesn't enjoy reading and is much more into sports. She doesn't mind her present however she had been hoping to get a puppy as she had been begging her parents for years. She is disappointed and when her parents ask if she is happy with her present, she has been taught be polite and expresses her gratitude. She responds that she loves the book and thanks her parents.

George is obsessed with video games and it is his 11th birthday. He wakes up expecting to receive the PlayStation 5, however similarly to his sister, he receives books. Unlike Olivia, George expresses his disappointment and is very upset about not receiving the present he wanted. He throws a tantrum and doesn't speak to anyone for the rest of the day.

Questions to consider:

  • Was Olivia honest in this situation?
  • Was George honest in this situation?
  • How would have Olivia's parents reacted if she expressed her disappointment?
  • Are either of their reactions inherently wrong?

Prosocial liesEdit

There are different types of lies that humans are taught or learn to tell. One that is quite common is a prosocial lie - a lie that is intended to benefit others (Levine & Lupoli, 2022). Prosocial lies are often motivated by the desire to spare others from emotional harm. They are frequently told in situations in which honesty would cause heightened emotional harm or by people who are sensitive to others[grammar?] emotional suffering (Levine & Lupoli, 2022). Targets only react positively to prosocial lies when they prevent emotional harm and when honesty lacks instrumental value (Levine & Lupoli, 2022). Outside of these situations where they may be accepted, targets typically view prosocial lies as paternalistic and penalise those who tell them (Levine & Lupoli, 2022).

White liesEdit

White lies are untruthful statements that are told without spite or malicious intent. They are not viewed as antisocial lies as they are often considered to have positive values attached to them (Talwar & Lee, 2002). They have been argued to comply with important rules of social communication, including that one must help, not harm the listener (Talwar & Lee, 2002). In some situations, white lies are required in order to maintain amicable social relations between the speaker and the listener (Talwar & Lee, 2002). White lies serve both other- and self-oriented protective functions, they avoid hurting the feelings and negative reactions from the listener to the speaker if the truth was told (Talwar & Lee, 2002).

Duping delightEdit

More deceitful motivations of lying include compulsive lying or duping delight. In contrast, these are seen much more negatively than prosocial or altruistic lies which are aimed at providing a benefit to another individual (McArthur et al., 2022). Lying can become a problem behaviour with frequent or inappropriate use over time (Talwar & Crossman, 2011). Chronic lie-telling of any sort risks social consequences, such as the loss of credibility and damage to relationships (Talwar & Crossman, 2011). By middle childhood, chronic reliance on lying may be related to poor development of conscience, weak self-regulatory control, and antisocial behaviour and could be indicative of maladjustment and put the individual in conflict with the environment (Talwar & Crossman, 2011).


A study gathered 98 children aged between 3 and 7 years to investigate the emergence of white-lie-telling behaviour in young children in politeness situations. The children were presented with an adult with a conspicuous mark on their nose and were asked by the adult if they looked okay. Once the adult left the room, the confederate asked the same child whether they thought the adult looked okay (Talwar & Lee, 2002).

The results showed that most children as young as 3 years of age made contradictory statements and told the adult they looked okay but changed their statement when they were not present. It was concluded that white lie behaviour may emerge around the same age as do lies to conceal transgressions (Talwar & Lee, 2002).

Personality influencesEdit

A study examined why people are not honest and showed that 77% of participants claimed to tell fewer than three lies per week (McArthur, Jarvis, Bourgeois & Ternes, 2022). The study was primarily set out to explore the motivations for lying however the findings demonstrated a relationship between lying and general personality traits (McArthur et al., 2022).

The dark triadEdit

Honesty is found to be low among those scoring high on the dark triad, a psychological theory of personality involving psychopathy, machiavellianism, and narcissism, three personality traits which are often associated with immoral behaviour (McArthur et al., 2022). Studies examining the relationship between personality and deception have linked the dark triad traits and self-centred motivations for lying (Gonza & Bull, 2001). People who score highly on machiavellianism, a dark trait characterised by manipulation, are ambitious and confident (DePaulo et al., 1985). Scoring highly on this personality trait has been found to predict lying for self gain (McArthur et al., 2022)

Figure 4. The Dark Triad consists of psychopathy, machiavellianism, and narcissism.

With regard to individual differences and lying in everyday life, those that[grammar?] scored high on traits associated with manipulativeness, impression management and extraversion told more lies than those who scored low on the same traits (Gonza & Bull, 2001).

Chronic reliance on lying by children can also be seen to be linked to antisocial behaviour and poor development of conscience (Gonza & Bull, 2001).

HEXACO Personality InventoryEdit

The HEXACO Personality Inventory covers honesty-humility, emotionality, extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness & openness to experience (Ashton, Lee & de Vries, 2014). A study found that individuals high in honest-humility are genuine in their relationships and feel little temptation to break rules or manipulate others for personal gain. In comparison, those with low honest-humility scores are motivated by personal gain and seek to manipulate others for their own self interest (Ashton et al. 2014).


People are motivated to be honest for a variety of reasons. From intrinsically motivated reasons to self-serving reasons, people often act in a way that complies with their own self-concept while fitting in with the societal norms of their culture. Honesty is taught to children but it is evident there are certain rules that children learn to acquire the etiquette of their culture. Often people act dishonestly in attempt to not hurt others feelings or to heighten their self-presentation. In these circumstances, acting honestly may be not be seen as inherently good. Motivations for honesty are multifaceted with some people concealing their true motivations. Evaluating whether someone is honest for right or wrong reasons can be difficult to distinguish as it is often the motivation behind it that should be considered.

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Take home message:

The next time you decide to act in an honest way, consider to yourself what motivating factors led you to that decision and why.

See alsoEdit

[Use bullet-points, per Tutorial 02] Consumer purchase honesty and dishonesty (Book chapter, 2019)

Honesty and integrity (Wikiversity)


Ashton, M. C., Lee, K., & de Vries, R. E. (2014). The HEXACO Honesty-Humility, Agreeableness, and Emotionality Factors. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 18(2), 139–152.

Azar, O. H., & Applebaum, M. (2020). Do children cheat to be honored? A natural experiment on dishonesty in a math competition. Journal of Economic Behavior &Amp; Organization, 169, 143–157.

DePaulo, B. M., Ansfield, M. E., Kirkendol, S. E., & Boden, J. M. (2004). Serious Lies. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 26(2–3), 147–167.

DePaulo, B. M., Kashy, D. A., Kirkendol, S. E., Wyer, M. M., & Epstein, J. A. (1996). Lying in everyday life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70(5), 979–995.

(DePaulo, Kashy, Kirkendol, Wyer & Epstein, 1996)[missing something?]

Evans, A. D., & Lee, K. (2013). Emergence of lying in very young children. Developmental Psychology, 49(10), 1958–1963.

Gächter, S., & Schulz, J. F. (2016). Intrinsic honesty and the prevalence of rule violations across societies. Nature, 531(7595), 496–499.

Gozna, L. F., Vrij, A., & Bull, R. (2001). The impact of individual differences on perceptions of lying in everyday life and in a high stake situation. Personality and Individual Differences, 31(7), 1203–1216.

Guo, C. X., & Rochat, P. (2022). Children’s cost–benefit assessment of lies across three cultures. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 217, 105355.

Levine, E. E., & Lupoli, M. J. (2022). Prosocial lies: Causes and consequences. Current Opinion in Psychology, 43, 335–340.

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370–396.

Mazar, N., Amir, O., & Ariely, D. (2008). The Dishonesty of Honest People: A Theory of Self-Concept Maintenance. Journal of Marketing Research, 45(6), 633–644.

McArthur, J., Jarvis, R., Bourgeois, C., & Ternes, M. (2022). Lying motivations: Exploring personality correlates of lying and motivations to lie. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science / Revue Canadienne Des Sciences Du Comportement, 54(4), 335–340.

Miller, C. B. (2020). Motivation and the Virtue of Honesty: Some Conceptual Requirements and Empirical Results. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 23(2), 355–371.

Ścigała, K. A., Schild, C., & Zettler, I. (2020). Dishonesty as a signal of trustworthiness: Honesty-Humility and trustworthy dishonesty. Royal Society Open Science, 7(10), 200685.

Shanahan, K. J., Hopkins, C. D., Carlson, L., & Raymond, M. A. (2013). Student Identification of Academic Cheating Typology and the Link to Shoplifting Motivation. Marketing Education Review, 23(2), 163–178.

Talwar, V., & Crossman, A. (2011). From little white lies to filthy liars. Advances in Child Development and Behavior, 139–179.

Talwar, V., & Lee, K. (2002). Emergence of White-Lie Telling in Children Between 3 and 7 Years of Age. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 48(2), 160–181.

Walczyk, J. J., Harris, L. L., Duck, T. K., & Mulay, D. (2014). A social-cognitive framework for understanding serious lies: Activation-decision-construction-action theory. New Ideas in Psychology, 34, 22–36.

External linksEdit