Jon Krause

Could small acts of dishonesty—a face-saving lie, a few pens pilfered from the office supply cabinet—afflict the perpetrator with more than just a guilty conscience? A paper recently published in Journal of Experimental Psychology: General and co-authored by a Darden School of Business associate professor of business administration, Bidhan Parmar, suggests they might. 

Across a series of experiments, the researchers found evidence indicating that a small act of dishonesty in one situation—such as lying about results on a simple die-throwing game—could impair a person’s “empathic accuracy,” or “ability to accurately detect others’ emotions” in a subsequent situation.

What might explain this shift? As the authors note, “dishonest actions can trigger motivated moral disengagement, which creates a separation between the self and others.” In other words, when we are dishonest, our focus turns toward rationalizing our behavior to ourselves and away from being attuned to others. Because being able to accurately read the emotions of those around us aids in our ability to connect with them, a vicious cycle can evolve, the authors suggest, in which increasing distance from others makes it easier to engage in dishonest behavior, furthering disconnection. At its most extreme, this disengagement can lead a person to dehumanize others altogether. 

Intriguingly, the research shows that dishonesty might exact an indirect toll, affecting your relationship not only with those directly deceived, but with everyone else as well.  “Even small acts of dishonesty,” the authors write in a companion article in Scientific American, “can go a long way.”