There’s more to honesty than not lying

A new framework highlights how honest behavior encompasses much more than the commonly held view of either telling the truth or lying.

Most people value honesty while also recognizing that it is sometimes beneficial to be dishonest. This tension leads individuals to engage in behaviors that stretch the boundaries of honest behavior, such as strategically avoiding information, dodging questions, and making misleading statements.

Based on their new findings, the researchers say the narrow focus on honest content, which largely reduces the study of honesty to lying versus truth-telling, is problematic and connected to modern-day societal challenges such as the spread of misinformation.

Instead, the researchers suggest that honest behavior is a complex phenomenon that is more than a single behavior focused on truth-telling; it is a broader relational act of communication.

“Honest behavior has relational elements—for example, fostering an accurate understanding in others through what we disclose and how we communicate—and intellectual elements—for example, evaluating information for accuracy, searching for accurate information, and updating our beliefs accordingly,” explains study coauthor Taya Cohen, associate professor of organizational behavior and business ethics at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business.

For the study in the Academy of Management Annals, the researchers reviewed nearly 170 empirical articles published between 2000 and 2021, covering the fields of management, organizational behavior, applied psychology, and business ethics.

They identified four distinct facets of honest behavior and highlighted that the process of being fully honest begins with communicators forming accurate beliefs based on a process of evaluation, search and incorporation (intellectual honesty), sharing their beliefs truthfully without lying (honest content), ensuring that they provide sufficient disclosure without leaving out relevant information (honest disclosure), and doing so in a way that allows listeners to form an accurate understanding of the message (honest delivery).

As part of this process, the authors outlined findings regarding the antecedents and consequences for each of these facets of honest behavior, concluding that engaging in honest behavior has consequences for both communicators and listeners, on an individual, social, and organizational level.

Additionally, to generate ideas to guide future research, the authors highlighted findings from a variety of other fields, such as social psychology and communication, while also connecting honest behavior to other prominent concepts in the management literature (e.g., voice/silence, psychological safety) that have not included discussions of honesty.

The framework has practical implications for individuals and organizations wishing to increase honesty, the authors suggest. It can be used to encourage people to seek truthful information, update their beliefs based on this information, and attempt to foster true beliefs in others as part of the information-sharing process, to create a safe and inclusive workplace environment.

“We must consider not just what people do or do not say, but also how beliefs are formed, the extent to which beliefs are updated when needed, and whether recipients walk away from communication exchanges with the same beliefs that communicators meant to convey,” says lead author Benny Cooper, a postdoctoral fellow in organizational behavior and theory.

“It is only by understanding all these nuanced honesty-related behaviors that we can develop effective methods for cultivating the virtue of honesty in people and organizations.”

Additional coauthors are from Northwestern University, the University of Chicago, Wake Forest University, and Carnegie Mellon. The John Templeton Foundation funded the work.

Source: Carnegie Mellon University

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