Would you lie if you knew it would help you and were guaranteed to get away with it? People often lie to get what they want. For instance, people lie about themselves to attract dates, their credentials to land jobs, and alternative buyers to enhance their negotiating position. And at least in negotiation contexts, these lies often pay off.

Getting away with lies often comes with material rewards, but does it pay psychologically? On the one hand, research shows that some forms of deception, such as successfully cheating on a task, can feel thrilling. On the other hand, misleading another person might taint the thrill of gaining material rewards if people dwell on their deceptive tactics. To reconcile these competing predictions, we conducted studies to identify the psychological consequences of duping others for material gain. We studied this issue in the context of buyer-seller negotiations, where lies are especially rampant.

In one study, for example, participants acted as a seller in a negotiation over a computer and stood to earn more money the higher the sale price. Half the participants interacted with a buyer unaware of a defect in the computer, presenting the seller with an opportunity to lie; most of those sellers (74%) did lie to get a better price. The other half of the participants were randomly assigned to a control condition where the buyer was aware of the defect, eliminating the opportunity to lie.

On average, participants who seized the opportunity to lie earned more money in the experiment. But, despite making more money, they were less satisfied with the negotiation experience and their outcome than sellers who did not have the opportunity to lie. Three additional studies revealed a similar pattern. Undetected lies carried psychological costs even when they allowed negotiators to profit economically and remained hidden from counterparts. Despite the monetary benefits, deception elicited more guilt than positive emotion in the deceiver and tainted the deceiver's negotiation experience.

Another Cost: Relationship Damage

Our research also revealed another cost exacted by undetected lying: damage to the relationship with the victim. In another study, participants again negotiated over the sale of a computer with a counterpart buyer whom they either did or did not have the opportunity to deceive. This time, however, participants engaged in a follow-up negotiation with the same counterpart in a context that did not present them with an opportunity to lie. Despite their earlier lies remaining concealed, participants' earlier lies colored their subsequent interaction with that counterpart. Deceptive participants were less satisfied with the second encounter with the same counterpart than participants without the opportunity to lie in the first negotiation. Further, they were less likely to choose to interact again with that counterpart on a nondescript third task. In other words, they opted out of the relationship faster. These findings indicate that undetected dishonesty can damage relationships in the eyes of the deceiver, undermining their satisfaction in future encounters with the same counterpart and leading them to avoid future interactions with that counterpart. In a final study, we replicated this pattern in a context where negotiators acted as agents and were "just following orders" given to them by a client.

What If There is a Financial Windfall?

We reasoned that large payoffs for lying might ease any psychological burden from acting dishonestly if one gains a lot of money from the lie. To test this reasoning, one of our studies compared a small incentive to lie to one 12.5 times the size. A larger incentive size did not eliminate guilt. On the contrary, guilt emerged regardless of incentive size, and the large incentive made participants feel even guiltier.

Does the Liar's Own Character Matter?

Presumably, people who lack moral character—they struggle with self-control, fail to empathize with others, and don't consider morality fundamental to their self-concept—should be relatively comfortable with telling lies. We measured those three traits associated with moral character. Yet those traits did not impact the amount of guilt induced by lying. Even participants who exhibited relatively low levels of the moral character traits we measured felt worse when they lied than when they did not have the opportunity to do so.

The bottom line is that self-serving lies incur psychological costs and can damage relationships, even when they go undetected in a competitive context like a negotiation. Next time you are tempted to lie, the psychological consequences might be worth considering. You could get away with the lie, but the psychological and relational costs might outweigh any material benefit.

For Further Reading

Van Zant, A. B., Kennedy, J. A., & Kray, L. J. (2022). Does hoodwinking others pay? The psychological and relational consequences of undetected negotiator deception. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000410

Alex B. Van Zant is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Management and Global Business at Rutgers Business School–Newark and New Brunswick, Rutgers University. His research examines how people can enhance their ability to manage impressions in interpersonal interactions and make decisions more consistent with their ethical values.

Jessica A. Kennedy is an Associate Professor of Management at Vanderbilt University.  She holds a PhD from UC Berkeley and a B.S. from the University of Pennsylvania, and her research investigates potential conflicts between ethical values and career outcomes.

Laura J. Kray is a professor at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business in the Management of Organizations group. Her research examines the role of gender stereotypes and mindsets on workplace behavior, including negotiations and ethical decision-making.