Wake Forest University and Carnegie Mellon University

Science of Honesty Projects

Honesty-Values Conflicts – In Medicine, Politics, and in Life

Emma Levine, Ph.D.

Emma Levine, Ph.D.
The University of Chicago Booth School of Business


Engaging in difficult conversations is a necessary and challenging part of personal and professional life. Individuals face the burden of sharing challenging opinions with relational partners, leaders face the burden of revealing failures and broken promises to their followers, and physicians face the burden of delivering tragic news to patients and their family members. Communicators often fail to be honest when faced with these difficult conversations. Why? This project is motivated by the idea that many failures of honesty are driven by moral conflict. During difficult conversations, for example, communicators may sacrifice honesty in the service of other moral values, such as social harmony, in-group loyalty, or benevolence.

This project reflects an interdisciplinary effort to understand how morally motivated individuals, professionals, and leaders reason about, resolve, and react to moral conflicts involving honesty. Using both qualitative and experimental methods, we seek to answer four central questions: 1) What moral values are relevant to difficult conversations?, 2) How does this differ across contexts and cultures?, 3) How are honesty-values conflicts experienced and resolved?, 4) What interventions promote honesty in the face of moral conflict? Our research team, which includes behavioral and political scientists, academic physicians, and organizational behavior scholars, will examine these questions across three domains: politics, medicine, and everyday life.

We focus on these domains for both their theoretical and practical importance. First, by examining multiple contexts and a range of communication dilemmas, we will develop a broad, integrative understanding of the psychological forces that inhibit and motivate honesty. We are guided by the overarching hypothesis that many of our most common honesty-values conflicts are experienced as a tension between causing short-term harm to our relationships and reaping the long-term benefits of honesty (such as increased understanding and growth). We seek to validate this hypothesis across a number of studies, and examine how these dimensions explain variance in honesty across settings.

Second, by studying these domains, we bridge the philosophy and science of honesty. For centuries, philosophers, theologians, and scientists have grappled with existential questions about the acceptability and consequences of morally motivated dishonesty. These questions have been particularly challenging when considering the duties that individuals have to care for the sick and dying, the duties that political leaders have to protect public interests, and the precarious nature of white lies in close relationships. Our research sheds light on how communicators and listeners make sense of these situations, thereby providing empirical answers to philosophical questions on the consequences of honesty and deception. Finally, by studying the causes and consequences of (dis)honesty in politics and healthcare, we hope to answer timely questions about why even well- meaning professionals make communication errors, and how we can fix them.

When Honesty is Discouraged: Understanding Culturally-Endorsed Parental Lies

Thalia R. Goldstein, Ph.D. (co-PI)

Thalia R. Goldstein, Ph.D. (co-PI)
George Mason University

Candice Mills

Candice Mills, Ph.D. (co-PI)
The University of Texas at Dallas


Parents want to raise honest and moral children. Together with the broader culture of media, religious institutions, and schools, parents are a primary source of moral development, and teach norms of honesty to their children. Yet there are instances where parents conspire with the broader culture, media, and even schools and religious institutions to lie and induce false beliefs in their children: with cultural fictional characters such as Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy. Most parents lie to their children about these characters happily and across multiple time points and experiences. Parental honesty about Santa’s non-reality status is seen as strange and requires a coherent reason. While there is extant work on how children eventually discover the truth about cultural characters, the forms of these parental lies and how parents reconcile these lies with their desires to raise moral children has not been studied. Likewise, why some parents may choose honesty and go against the broader American culture, and how these kinds of character-driven parental lies exist in other cultures outside of the United States, is relatively unknown. The current project focuses on three critical pieces of these cultural lies to discover how they work with broader beliefs about honesty: the norms parents hold around cultural fictional characters, the experiences parents provide for their children to induce disbelief, and the moral reasoning parents use to resolve their lying with their personal morality. We include not just American parents who are culturally consistent with the broader culture in lying to their children around these characters, but also American parents who specifically chose to go against the broader culture and tell their children the truth for a variety of reasons (religious, moral, etc.). We also include parents from other cultures (Russian, Mexican, and Dutch) where both the forms and the nature of cultural character lies are different. This project will explore and explain this singular tension between moral development and broad dishonesty in two ways: by directly asking parents about their reasoning and behaviors, and by observing the ways in which parents actually talk to their children about these characters in a linguistic conversation task. Results will have implications for conceptualizing parental honesty and theories of moral development and for understanding cultural variations in parental honesty around societal norms.

When Seeing is Believing: Cultivating Well-Being and Change through Honest Connection

Bonnie M. Le, Ph.D.

Bonnie M. Le, Ph.D.
University of Rochester


Honesty is a virtue that many societies value. Within our closest relationships, people often state that honesty is a highly desired trait in a romantic partner. Indeed, honest expressions have the potential to deepen our bonds and create a sense of intimacy with others. Despite the important role of honesty in our relationships, expressing ourselves honestly can often be challenging. Further, within the scientific domain, relatively little research has been conducted to understand the causes and consequences of honesty.

In the current work, a four-part study is proposed to identify how honest connections between two individuals can promote well-being, positive emotions, and willingness to change for the better. Specifically, honest connections are conceptualized as the match between higher levels of honest expression in one individual and higher perceived levels of honest expression by another individual. Honest connections are examined in the context of one of our most intimate relationships, that between romantic partners. The proposed four-part study will examine whether honest connections between romantic partners predicts greater well-being, positive emotions, and partner change in real-time social interactions, in daily life, and over a three- month period. The effects of honest connections between romantic partners will be examined in a relationship-threatening context in which honest expressions may be challenging to share: requesting change from a partner. In addition, honest connections will be examined in relationship-building contexts that facilitate intimacy and relationship maintenance: expressing appreciation to a partner. Finally, important qualities of romantic partners—including how secure and caring they are—as well as characteristics of honest expressions—including levels of benevolence, bluntness, restraint, and disclosure—will be examined to better understand when honest connections facilitate the highest levels of well-being and growth.

The proposed study can help us understand honesty as a dyadic connection between two individuals, suggesting that the benefits of honesty are maximized when greater honest expressions on the part of one individual are accurately perceived by another individual. Understanding the shared perception that must occur for the benefits of honesty to arise can have important implications for promoting the well-being and growth of individuals in close relationships and beyond.

When Liars are Considered Honest:
Understanding Different Logics of Political Honesty

Stephan Lewandowsky, Ph.D.

Stephan Lewandowsky, Ph.D.
University of Bristol

David Garcia, Ph.D.
Graz University of Technology


Numerous indicators suggest that democracy is under threat worldwide, with misinformation cited as a major concern. Misinformation is troubling not only because it lingers in memory even if people know it has been corrected, but also because under certain circumstances people come to view and value inaccuracy as a signal of “authenticity.” Within a populist logic, blatant lies violate the “establishment” norm of accuracy, thereby signaling the “authenticity” of a champion of “the people”. A lying politician may be considered “honest” because they are authentically “speaking their mind”.

Cooper, Cohen, Huppert, Levine, & Fleeson, 2021

Such belief-speaking is one component of a tripartite model of honesty (see figure) developed by the Honesty Project funders (Cooper, Cohen, Huppert, Levine, & Fleeson, 2021) and involves only the speaker’s beliefs and feelings, irrespective of factual accuracy. For a democracy, “belief-speaking” is problematic because it allows leaders to “honestly” speak beliefs without seeking common ground based on the actual state of the world.

We therefore urgently need a better understanding of what is considered politically “honest”, and under what circumstances. Within the tripartite model, this quest requires exploration of the balance between the three components. We pursue this quest computationally, using large- scale data analysis and text modeling of corpora (e.g., Google ngram, New York Times, Congressional Record).

Stage 1: Historical text-modeling. We examine the semantic evolution of “honesty” and related concepts (e.g., “truth”; “fact”; “mislead”) over time (1970s onward). We expect the components of the tripartite model to emerge as topics. This will illuminate 50 years of Americans’ thoughts about honesty.

Stage 2: Presidential dishonesty. We will relate the linguistic markers of honesty (from Stage 1) to events that arguably involved dishonesty by the president (viz. Watergate, Iran-contra, Lewinsky affair, Weapons of Mass Destruction, and the recent rise of “belief speaking”). For each event, we focus on relevant text (e.g., discussing Watergate) to explore the tripartite model.

Stage 3: Language and attitudes. We will link text modeling to behavioral data from existing surveys, e.g., American Freshman Survey (AFS). The AFS has sampled freshmen since 1966, querying political views and social / political engagement. We will relate survey data to the historical events and to linguistic markers (from Stages 1-2).

Stage 4: Honesty and society. We will link text modeling to societal indicators. Guided by precedent, we expect economic inequality, via its established links to polarization, to create obstacles for finding shared facts. Other variables address social capital (e.g., trust, civic engagement), whose decline has been posited as catalyst for misinformation.

Expected contribution

Concern with “fake news” has become a central theme around the world. We believe that honesty must matter in a democracy or it will not remain a democracy. Our project will identify factors that determine how people view honesty, and what we might do to make accuracy matter again.

The Emergence of Honesty in Individual, Dyadic, and Group Settings

William Chopik

William Chopik, Ph.D.
Michigan State University

Richard Lucas, Ph.D.
Michigan State University

Robert A. Ackerman
University of Texas at Dallas


An honest assessment of the empirical research on honesty reveals many unknowns about the topic. How is honesty best measured? How does honesty develop across life and change over time? Are people accurate in their reports of honesty? And what are the intra- and interpersonal consequences for honesty and dishonesty? We proposed to answer these questions in four studies. In Study 1, we will examine how honesty changes across the lifespan in 747 people from ages 7 to 77 across six studies of human development. In Study 2, we will examine how honesty differs depending on how old you are and when you were born in US history, and whether honesty has been changing in recent societal history in a sample of 1.8 million participants. In Study 3, we will examine if there are aspects of romantic partners that might make us more honest, if partners evaluate us differently than we do, and the consequences for thinking you are honest when a romantic partner does not. In Study 4, we examine agreement in honesty ratings in quartets of participants and examine if honesty is best explained by there being honest people, honesty being a transaction occurring between two people, or whether honest people tend to affiliate with one another. Altogether, the four studies provide exciting new conceptual and methodological development about where honesty comes from, whether people agree on who is honest, how it can be cultivated, and how honesty permeates individual lives, romantic relationships, and broader groups.

Honest for the Good Reason: The Impact of Goals and Motives on Honesty

Giulio Costantini, Ph.D. (co-PI)

Giulio Costantini, Ph.D. (co-PI)
University of Milan-Bicocca


Marco Perugini, Ph.D. (co-PI)
University of Milan-Bicocca


Honesty and truthfulness are examples of virtuous human dispositions and play a fundamental role in the fabric of society. However, their processes are not fully understood yet. Research in philosophy has pointed out that, without knowledge of the motivations underlying honest and dishonest behavior, it is impossible to clearly define such tendencies. Research shows that there are instances in which truthfulness is detrimental and in which lies can be used to pursue goals that are beneficial for individuals and for society. However, very few studies have directly investigated goals and motives connected to honesty and dishonesty.

This project aims at filling this gap by performing a systematic empirical investigation of goals and motives underlying honesty and dishonesty. The project is structured in three steps. The first one involves systematic exploratory studies that aim at identifying a comprehensive set of goals and motives related to different aspects of honesty. Using a combination of techniques for analyzing textual data that we have developed and refined over recent years, we will identify and classify the goals that individuals can usually pursue by means of honest and dishonest behaviors. The second step is the development of psychometrically valid assessments of goals for honesty and dishonesty, including instruments for monitoring variation of goals within individuals over time. Despite being of fundamental importance, such instruments are currently missing in the psychology literature. The third step combines cross-sectional, longitudinal, and experimental designs for clarifying the motivational dynamics of honesty and dishonesty. This project will allow establishing the extent to which honesty and dishonesty can be simply considered opposites from a motivational standpoint (i.e., means for opposite goals) versus motivationally unique tendencies. Furthermore, psychological research has shown that truthfulness and other aspects of honesty (e.g., lack of greed), as well as other tendencies, such as modesty and humility, show positive correlations. This project will contribute to elucidating the extent to which these correlations could reflect motivational overlap, thus allowing a better characterization of honesty. Finally, this project will also develop and experimentally test strategies that could be used to assist individuals in improving their honesty over time.

By defining the motivational underpinnings of honesty, by providing assessments of goals of honesty and dishonesty, and by investigating how goals and motives shape honesty and dishonesty, this project has the potential to greatly contribute to some of the most important questions regarding honesty, its definition, its quantification, and its dynamics. Furthermore, this project will provide essential tools (e.g., taxonomies and assessments of goals and motives of honesty) that could facilitate other research programs both in psychology and philosophy, ultimately converging to a better and richer comprehension of the different faces of honesty and of dishonesty.

Honesty as a Moral Currency: A Cross-Cultural Study

Ori Weisel

Ori Weisel, Ph.D.
Tel Aviv University

Jonathan Schulz, Ph.D.
George Mason University

Shaul Shalvi, Ph.D.
University of Amsterdam


Humans are an especially cooperative species. We are also remarkably honest, even when tempted to lie to secure personal profit. Recent work revealed, however, that when collaboration and honesty are at odds, honesty often gives way to corrupt collaboration. The current project seeks to clarify what determines the extent to which people view honesty as a ‘moral currency’ which they can exchange for other important values, such as cooperation. Furthermore, it assesses the extent to which the balance between intrinsic honesty and cooperative dispositions depends on the cultural setting. To date, corrupt collaboration has been studied almost exclusively in Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic (WEIRD) countries, which have relatively similar baseline levels of cooperation and honesty. Consequently, the extent to which people are willing to forgo their honesty for the sake of a fruitful collaboration, and how the balance between honesty and cooperativeness depends on the cultural setting, is not known. The question is highly relevant in light of a growing body of research suggesting significant cultural differences along important dimensions, such that WEIRD countries often constitute the exception, rather than the rule. In particular, recent work found that (1) people’s intrinsic honesty is associated with their country’s “Prevalence of Rule Violations”, an index combining corruption, tax evasion, and political fraud; and (2) impersonal cooperation is related to well-functioning institutions and to the strength of kin-networks. Since corrupt collaboration captures people’s willingness to trade honesty for cooperation, it is important to study the phenomenon in cultures with varying base-levels of these traits. The current project will collect data in a heterogeneous set of countries that vary on individual honesty and cooperative tendencies. We will use behavioral measures to assess individual (dis)honesty and individual cooperativeness, as well as corrupt collaboration. Additionally, we will measure honesty as a personality characteristic. The combination of country level variation and individual measures will allow us to investigate the extent to which the cultural context shapes collaborative dishonesty over and above intrinsic honesty and cooperativeness. Studying collaborative dishonesty across the world is important to understand how the use of honesty as a moral currency varies across cultures. Specifically, it will allow for a better understanding of the importance that various cultures place on honesty vis-à-vis other important values and goals, such as establishing collaborative relationships.

“Am I the A-hole for Lying?”: A Large-Scale Investigation of Honesty in Daily Life

Sudeep Bhatia, Ph.D.

Sudeep Bhatia, Ph.D.
University of Pennsylvania


One of the first lessons we teach our children is the importance of telling the truth. Yet many of the most important questions about the nature of honesty have yet to be answered. Chief among these are fundamental questions about how people experience and evaluate honesty in everyday experience. What proportion of everyday moral dilemmas involve questions of honesty? When do people forgive dishonesty? What justifications do they use to do so?

This project leverages state-of-the-art techniques in natural language processing to conduct a large-scale investigation of how people describe, reason about, and evaluate honesty in their daily lives. Our project identifies a unique repository of moral information: a forum on Reddit called “Am I The Asshole?” (AITA). The AITA forum provides users the opportunity to write a post describing a personal moral quandary on any topic, punctuated with the title question. Others then respond to the post with a comment containing the letters “NTA” (“Not the asshole”) or “YTA” (“You’re the asshole”) along with an explanation of their reasoning. AITA is uniquely positioned to provide a naturalistic study of honesty because it is massive, containing approximately 400,000 posts and 10 million comments, and because its structure allows us to extract a quantitative measure of moral evaluation, thereby providing a criterion variable against which other text information can be assessed.

We will use machine learning methods to extract relevant information from each post and comment to explore how people think about honesty in their own and others’ lives. Our investigation will focus on three variables relevant to honesty: social context, moral foundations, and moral reasoning. As a result, we will be able to shed light on the social contexts make people more or less likely to forgive dishonest behavior, how frequently people experience honesty dilemmas relative to other dilemmas, and how people’s style of moral reasoning (i.e., whether it focuses on duties or consequences) impacts their evaluation of (dis)honest behavior. In addition, we will make our materials available to the public for future research.

By exploring how people describe and reason about honesty dilemmas in their own words, this project will answer foundational questions regarding the nature of honesty as it is experienced in daily life. Furthermore, because the dataset will contain information about all moral behaviors, it will offer us the opportunity to situate our analyses regarding the nature of honesty in relation to the full range of moral dilemmas people may encounter. Ultimately, this will yield insights that inform the psychological and philosophical understanding of honesty, which could help promote this behavior in social and organizational settings.