We all know lying is wrong. That’s why we get in trouble for it as kids (and sometimes as adults), and why you’ll rarely if ever meet a priest, imam, rabbi, lama, mobad, guru, philosopher, or high school guidance counselor who condones it as a general rule. And yet, whether it’s around climate change, vaccines, asylum seekers, or anything really, we seem to be living in a golden age of misinformation. Clearly, some people didn’t get the memo. So what gives?
“The rise in misinformation is a pressing societal problem, stoking political polarization and eroding trust in business and politics,” explained Beth Anne Helgason, lead author of a new study, published this week in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
“Misinformation in part persists because some people believe it. But that’s only part of the story,” she said. “Misinformation also persists because sometimes people know it is false but are still willing to excuse it.”
According to the study, it turns out people are pretty happy to excuse a lie – a proper lie, that is, not just a fudged truth, or repeat of something without checking whether it’s true first – if they think it might become true in future.
“Because nobody knows what will come to pass, people have the flexibility to imagine the future as they like,” explains the paper.
“We suggest that when people want to imagine that a falsehood might become true – because this prediction fits with their preexisting motivations and beliefs – then prefactual thinking will have a greater effect on reducing their condemnation of the falsehood now.”
To a certain extent, this is pretty relatable. In one of the six experiments described in the paper, researchers asked more than 400 students from nearly 60 different countries to imagine a scenario where their friend had lied on their resume – he’s “list[ed] financial modelling as a skill … despite the fact that he has no experience with financial modelling,” the paper gives as an example.
Maybe you already think this isn’t that bad a lie, maybe not. But next, half of the participants were given another task: to “consider that if the same friend enrolls in a financial modeling course that the school offers in the summer, then he could develop experience with financial modelling.”
What do you think? Is it still such a bad lie?
The study participants didn’t think so. Even though it was highlighted that the additional statement was purely hypothetical – there’s no guarantee that your friend actually will enroll in that course, or that he’ll develop any experience with financial modeling even if he did – the mere act of thinking about a way in which the lie could become true made participants rate it as significantly less unethical.
Why? Because the “gist” of it is true, they said.
“[We] found that lying on a resume seemed less unethical … when they imagined how the lie might become true in the future,” explains the paper. “Furthermore … such imagination made the lies’ gist seem truer, which in turn predicted more lenient moral judgments.”
Okay, so maybe your buddy Jeff gets a job he isn’t qualified for. Big deal, you might say. Good for him. But the study also uncovered some much bigger – and more concerning – results.
For example: did you know that white Americans are 300 percent more likely to be approved for mortgages than black or Hispanic applicants with the same credentials? Or that millions of people voted illegally in the last presidential election?
Chances are, one of those statements sounds truer than the other to you. In fact, both are false – the real figures are 10 percent, and four people, respectively.
But even when participants were openly presented with the facts of the situation, the researchers found that asking them to imagine a way in which the lie could become true made them less likely to condemn it – and less likely to condemn spreading it further.
And of course, this result fell along political lines, but possibly not in the way you’re imagining. The fact is, the researchers realized, we’re just better at coming up with – and believing – hypothetical ways that lies could become true when the lie already fits in with our worldview. Take the examples above: if you lean right politically, chances are you can imagine a pretty plausible way for future US elections to become overrun with illegal voting. In other words, the statement may be false, but the gist of it is true.
If you’re left-leaning, on the other hand, it’s going to be a lot more difficult to reach that same conclusion.
“Our findings reveal how our capacity for imagination affects political disagreement and our willingness to excuse misinformation,” Helgason said. “Unlike claims about what is true, propositions about what might become true are impossible to fact-check. Thus, partisans who are certain that a lie will become true eventually may be difficult to convince otherwise.”
So what can we do about this? Unfortunately, the study doesn’t have many good answers – the methods they investigated in the hope of negating the effect had slim to no impact against the power of human imagination and confirmation bias. The best bet, though, seemed to be getting people to focus on the literal truth of the statement before inventing a reason why their preferred reality is, in fact, true regardless.
“Our findings are concerning, particularly given that we find that encouraging people to think carefully about the ethicality of statements was insufficient to reduce the effects of imagining a future where it might be true,” said study co-author Daniel Effron, professor of organizational behavior at the London Business School.
“This highlights the negative consequences of giving airtime to leaders in business and politics who spout falsehoods.”