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Tuesday, August 9, 2022

You can handle the truth: Mispredicting the consequences of honest communication

Levine, E. E., & Cohen, T. R. (2018).
Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 
147(9), 1400–1429. 


People highly value the moral principle of honesty, and yet, they often avoid being honest with others. One reason people may avoid being completely honest is that honesty frequently conflicts with kindness: candidly sharing one’s opinions and feelings can hurt others and create social tension. In the present research, we explore the actual and predicted consequences of communicating honestly during difficult conversations. We compare honest communication to kind communication as well as a neutral control condition by randomly assigning individuals to be honest, kind, or conscious of their communication in every conversation with every person in their life for three days. We find that people significantly mispredict the consequences of communicating honestly: the experience of being honest is far more pleasurable, leads to greater levels of social connection, and does less relational harm than individuals expect. We establish these effects across two field experiments and two prediction experiments and we document the robustness of our results in a subsequent laboratory experiment. We explore the underlying mechanisms by qualitatively coding participants’ reflections during and following our experiments. This research contributes to our understanding of affective forecasting processes and uncovers fundamental insights on how communication and moral values shape well-being.

From the Discussion section

Our findings make several important contributions to our understanding of morality, affective forecasting, and human communication. First, we provide insight into why people avoid being honest with others. Our results suggest that individuals’ aversion to honesty is driven by a forecasting failure: Individuals expect honesty to be less pleasant and less socially connecting than it is. Furthermore, our studies suggest this is driven by individuals’ misguided fear of social rejection. Whereas prior work on mispredictions of social interactions has primarily examined how individuals misunderstand others or their preferences for interaction, the present research examines how individuals misunderstand others’ reactions to honest disclosure of thoughts and feelings, and how this shapes social communication.

Second, this research documents the broader consequences of being honest. Individuals’ predictions that honest communication would be less enjoyable and socially connecting than kind communication or one’s baseline communication were generally wrong. In the field experiment (Study 1a), participants in the honesty condition either felt similar or higher levels of social connection relative to participants in the kindness and control conditions. Participants in the honesty condition also derived greater long-term hedonic well-being and greater relational improvements relative to participants in the control condition. Furthermore, participants in Study 2 reported increased meaning in their life one week after engaging in their brief, but intense, honest conversation. Scholars have long claimed that morality promotes well-being, but to our knowledge, this is the first research to document how enacting specific moral principles promote different types of well-being.

Taken together, these findings suggest that individuals’ avoidance of honesty may be a mistake. By avoiding honesty, individuals miss out on opportunities that they appreciate in the long-run, and that they would want to repeat. Individuals’ choices about how to behave – in this case, whether or not to communicate honestly – seem to be driven primarily by expectations of enjoyment, but appreciation for these behaviors is driven by the experience of meaning. We encourage future research to further examine how affective forecasting failures may prevent individuals from finding meaning in their lives.

See the link above to the research.