Welcome to the Nexus of Ethics, Psychology, Morality, Philosophy and Health Care

Welcome to the nexus of ethics, psychology, morality, technology, health care, and philosophy

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Community standards of deception: Deception is perceived to be ethical when it prevents unnecessary harm

Levine, E. E. (2021). 
Journal of Experimental Psychology: 
General. Advance online publication. 


We frequently claim that lying is wrong, despite modeling that it is often right. The present research sheds light on this tension by unearthing systematic cases in which people believe lying is ethical in everyday communication and by proposing and testing a theory to explain these cases. Using both inductive and experimental approaches, the present research finds that deception is perceived to be ethical and individuals want to be deceived when deception is perceived to prevent unnecessary harm. This research identifies eight community standards of deception: rules of deception that most people abide by and recognize once articulated, but have never previously been codified. These standards clarify systematic circumstances in which deception is perceived to prevent unnecessary harm, and therefore, circumstances in which deception is perceived to be ethical. This work also documents how perceptions of unnecessary harm influence the use and judgment of deception in everyday life, above and beyond other moral concerns. These findings provide insight into when and why people value honesty and paves the way for future research on when and why people embrace deception. 

From the Discussion

First, this work illuminates how people fundamentally think about deception. Specifically, this work identifies systematic circumstances in which deception is seen as more ethical than honesty, and it provides an organizing framework for understanding these circumstances. A large body of research identifies features of lies that make them seem more or less justifiable and therefore, that lead people to tell greater or fewer lies (e.g., Effron, 2018; Rogers, Zeckhauser, Gino, Norton, & Schweitzer, 2017; Shalvi, Dana, Handgraaf, & De Dreu, 2011). However, little research addresses whether people, upon, introspection, ever actually believe it is right to tell lies; that is, whether lying is ever a morally superior strategy to truth-telling. The present research finds that people believe lying is the right thing to do when it prevents unnecessary harm. Notably, this finding reveals that lay people seem to have a relatively pragmatic view of deception and honesty. Rather than believing deception is a categorical vice – for example, because it damages social trust (Bok 1978; Kant, 1949) or undermines autonomy (Bacon, 1872; Harris, 2011; Kant, 1959/1785) - people seem to conceptualize deception as a tactic that can and should be used to regulate another vice: harm.

Although this view of deception runs counter to prevailing normative claims and much of the existing scholarship in psychology and economics, which paints deception as generally unethical, it is important to note that this idea – that deception is and should be used pragmatically - is not novel. In fact, many of the rules of deception identified in the present research are alluded to in other philosophical, religious, and practical discussions of deception (see Table 2 for a review). Until now, however, these ideas have been siloed in disparate literatures, and behavioral scientists have lacked a parsimonious framework for understanding why individuals endorse deception in various circumstances. The present research identifies a common psychology that explains a number of seemingly unrelated “exceptions” to the norm of honesty, thereby unifying findings and arguments across psychology, religion, and philosophy under a common theoretical framework.