Wake Forest University and Carnegie Mellon University

Funding: The Science of Honesty

This funding competition has been completed.

Fellowship Announcement and Description

Wake Forest University, with the help of a very generous grant from The John Templeton Foundation, welcomes proposals for the “The Honesty Project” funding initiative. We aim to support scholars working on the study of honesty, especially early career-scholars who often have new and interesting ideas but who have not yet benefited from traditional funding sources. However, more senior investigators are also strongly encouraged to apply.

This $1.4 million dollar RFP is aimed at empirical studies designed to identify the determinants of honesty, the requirements for honesty, the degree to which people are honest, the consequences of honesty for relationships, groups, organizations, and institutions, and the reception of honesty. Proposals can request between $50,000 and $200,000 for projects not to exceed two years in duration. We hope to make 7 to 10 awards.

We welcome empirical projects from all scientific fields. We particularly envision applicants from psychology (personality, social, and developmental), organizational behavior, economics, and political science in particular, but other fields as well. Interdisciplinary teams of psychologists working with faculty in other disciplines, especially philosophy, are encouraged (but team-based proposals are not required).

Fellowship Directors: William Fleeson, R. Michael Furr, and Eranda Jayawickreme, Wake Forest University, and Taya Cohen, Carnegie Mellon University.


We frequently have the opportunity to lie, cheat, steal or mislead others. Yet it seems clear that honesty is very important. By acting honestly with others, we show respect for others and demonstrate that we value their autonomy. Honesty promotes trust and credibility, and prevents harm. It fosters healthy relationships, and strengthens organizations and societies. Hence, there is little controversy that honesty is a virtue (at least in most situations) and that it is important to a good society.

People can value being honest in their lives for many diverse reasons. Honesty promotes true belief and knowledge. True belief is of high intrinsic value, and one of the strongest ways to get true belief is for people to be honest. Functioning societies require honesty in most of their members. Every kind of relationship, from friendship to marriage to business to law, requires honesty to function well. This is because all relationships and interactions require making oneself vulnerable to others, and making oneself vulnerable to others requires trusting that the others will act in a certain way. This trust requires the general presumption that the others are being honest about their beliefs, intentions, and so forth. Honesty also promotes better relationships by creating understanding, closeness, and trust.

Honesty is also important because people have the right to make their own decisions based on as much knowledge as is available to them. Withholding knowledge from them is denying them this right. Finally, it is inconsistent to lie. When you lie, you are hoping that the recipient will believe you and will thereby be deceived. However, if everyone lies routinely, or even only you lie routinely, then no one will believe you and no one will be deceived.

Big Questions to be addressed in this funding competition

We hope to inspire work on this virtue by focusing on five Big Questions:

  1. What is the definition and value of honesty in its moral and intellectual forms? What are the behavioral and motivational requirements for being honest or exceptionally so?
  2. To what extent are people honest? How does this vary by culture?
  3. What contextual and internal factors encourage honesty and shape its development in individuals, groups, organizations, and institutions?
  4. What are the consequences of honesty and dishonesty for relationships, groups, organizations, and institutions?
  5. Under what conditions is dishonesty justified, if any? What factors lead people to be receptive to or offended by honesty?

What is the Virtue of Honesty?

The term ‘honest’ can apply to a variety of different objects. One object is an action, another object is mental activity, and a third object is a trait. All three of these are possible foci of study in funded projects.

Most centrally, ‘honesty’ as an action is meant to refer to telling the truth as the person sees it at the moment. As a mental activity, ‘honesty’ is meant to refer to avoiding self-deception, attempting to find the truth, attempting to be fair in evaluating information, valuing truth, and being motivated to be honest. As a trait, ‘honesty’ is meant to refer to relatively consistent individual differences in the degree of enacting honest behaviors and engaging in honest mental activities. Because ‘honesty’ is a morally-relevant term, we see honesty in this sense as a virtue.

However, the scope of honesty is open to broader conceptions in this competition. Honesty can be extended readily to include lack of deception. Honesty may also be extended to include cases of following rules vs cheating, respecting ownership vs stealing, and keeping promises.

At this point, we are hesitant to provide an extensively developed characterization of honesty that has to be accepted by all the RFP applicants. Indeed, one of the main goals of the project is to gain greater clarity about what honesty is in the first place. For this, we want researchers to think expansively rather than having to follow a prescribed detailed definition. At the same time, we do see the value in giving a general or ‘thin’ characterization of honesty that should govern the work of all the scholars involved in the project. This characterization, we suggest, is that honesty is concerned with being truthful in thought and action. For instance, misleading others or being a liar demonstrates a lack of concern with being truthful. We are open to projects that do not directly study truthfulness, as long as they explain how they relate to honesty as truthfulness.

Application Instructions

Letters of Intent are due by November 9, 2020. We will review these letters of intent and invite a portion of the applicants to submit a full proposal. We plan to invite full proposals by December 18, 2020. Submission of full proposals are due by March 15, 2021. We plan to make final award decisions by May 28, 2021 for research to begin on August 15, 2021.

Letter of Intent (LOI) Stage

Applicants are required to submit:

  1. A complete curriculum vitae for the PI and for all major team members (if applicable).
  2. A letter of intent that includes the central questions of the project, the background and significance of the questions, the way in which the project addresses at least one of the Big Questions of this RFP as well as how it relates to honesty defined broadly as concerned with being truthful in thought and action, a budget estimate, and a summary of the methodology. The letter cannot exceed 1,500 words.

Letters of Intent should be submitted to the application portal here. Acceptable file formats are .doc, docx, and PDF. Questions about the application process can be sent to honesty@wfu.edu. All LOI materials must be received no later than November 9, 2020.

Full Proposal Stage

Those applicants who are invited to submit full proposals must include:

  • A cover letter with the title, amount requested, duration of the project (not to exceed two years), and team members (if applicable).
  • A description of the work to be carried out, not to exceed 5,000 words. The description should explain the central questions of the project, the background and significance of the questions, the way in which the project addresses at least one of the Big Questions of this RFP as well as how it relates to honesty defined broadly as concerned with being truthful in thought and action, relevant issues in the White Paper, the methodology, and the researchers’ qualifications to conduct the research.
  • A project abstract of up to 500 words which explains the project and its significance to non-academics, and which would be published on The Honesty Project website and possibly in JTF materials, and included in publicity materials if the proposal is funded.
  • A timeline.
  • A detailed budget with accompanying narrative explaining line items, totaling between $50,000 and $200,000 in total costs including overhead. Overhead is limited to 15%, and funds cannot be used for major equipment purchases.
  • Approval of the Dept. Chair and University Signing Officials.

Full proposals should be submitted to the application portal here. Acceptable file formats are .doc, docx, and PDF. Full proposals will be accepted only from applicants who have been invited to submit by the fellowship directors, on the basis of the LOI phase. Full proposals must be received no later than March 15, 2021.

Selection criteria will include: (1) significance, approach, innovation, investigators, and environment, (2) relevance of the project to the RFP goals, and (3) likelihood of continuing work on honesty in the future. All applications must be submitted in English and all payments will be made in US dollars.

Grant Eligibility

The PI must have a Ph.D. and be in or contracted to a faculty position at an accredited college or university or pre-approved non-profit research institution (write us for pre-approval) before May 1, 2021. We will give preference to proposals from PIs who are within ten years of receiving their Ph.D. at the time of submission. However, more senior investigators are strongly encouraged to apply and alternatively can be included on proposals in other roles. Applicants can have their name as PI or co-PI on only one proposal for this competition, and if funded, cannot receive funding for salary or research expenses from any other funded proposals in the science of honesty or philosophy of honesty competitions, although they can be named on additional proposals in other roles.

Applicants from non-US countries are allowed. Because we cannot award grants of more than $200,000 USD, as such please budget in your own currency and please consider the implications of currency fluctuations.

The PI of funded projects must commit to the following:

  1. Submit interim and final reports, as well as interim and final expenditure reports. The interim and final reports should not exceed 5 pages, and should detail the outcomes of the funded project. Reports must be submitted at the end of Year 1 and at the conclusion of the project if the project is for more than one year.
  2. Attend a two-day Initial Research Conference in summer 2021 at the Graylyn International Conference Center (www.graylyn.com) in Winston Salem, NC (expenses covered by the Project). This requirement may ultimately be waived or modified given travel restrictions and global health issues associated with COVID-19. The workshop will include award winners from this competition, along with winners of the similar competition in philosophy. The purpose is to: (1) provide rich feedback to PI’s before beginning their projects, (2) infuse interdisciplinary considerations into the projects, (3) deepen connections between projects to enhance their coordinated impact on the field, and (4) create a network of scholars working on honesty. Other team members may attend the conference, but their expenses will not be covered by the Honesty Project, and the PI will be the one who delivers the presentation about their funded research.
  3. Summarize the feedback they received and request any changes they would like to make immediately after the conference (briefly, perhaps 1 page).
  4. Attend and present central results at the three-day Final Research Conference in June 2023, also at Graylyn (expenses covered by the Project).  PIs from both funding initiatives will present their conclusions. The purpose is to: (1) provide feedback to the PIs on their results, (2) suggest avenues for future research, (3) educate those in attendance about the findings of the research projects, (4) disseminate the findings more broadly and (5) deepen the professional network of honesty researchers which we have formed. Other team members may attend the conference, but their expenses will not be covered by the Honesty Project, and the PI will be the one who delivers the presentation about their funded research.
  5. Dedicate a significant portion of the PI’s time to the project, being directly involved in all day-to-day operations and conceptual development.
  6. Notify the Project at honesty@wfu.edu of all conference presentations, papers, and books that arise from the funded research.
  7. Follow stipulations of grant award as communicated by JTF either to WFU or to the recipient directly, and as determined by WFU.
  8. Enact quality research practices, including having a decision rule for terminating data collection, listing all relevant variables and experimental conditions in publications, reporting supplementary results without removing outliers or using covariates, and considering preregistration at a site such as aspredicted.org (Simmons et al., 2011). 
  9. Sign an attestation commitment to not start any funded human subjects research before IRB approval is obtained. The PI will submit the IRB approval information to honesty@wfu.edu when it is secured.
  10. Acknowledge that the research teams evaluating these proposals (as well as other applicants) may themselves have already developed very similar research ideas, and that they may develop similar ideas in the future, as is in the nature of this situation. The PI does not construe their proposal as a limit on those research directions.

All questions should be directed to:



The Honesty Project
Department of Philosophy Box 7332
Wake Forest University
Winston-Salem, NC 27109