When loyalty trumps honesty: judging loyal lies

In the workplace, in politics, on the softball team – almost anywhere there’s social interaction – people are sometimes deceitful out of loyalty to their group.

How do others judge these loyal lies? Is the dishonesty viewed as bad, because lying is unethical? Or is it seen as good, because loyalty is a virtue?

A Cornell professor and his colleague offer an uncomfortable answer that suggests we should tread lightly when we think we’re doing the right thing.

According to their new research, people who are dishonest out of loyalty feel they are acting ethically and morally. But outsiders disagree, and see those actions as immoral and wrong – unless they themselves lie out of loyalty.

When loyalties apply – when you’re surrounded by your family, organization or political party – those loyalties influence the way you judge your behavior. You might be doing something harmful to others. But that doesn’t matter to you, because you feel you’re fulfilling a higher value: your loyal duty,” said Angus Hildreth, assistant professor of management and organizations in the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management. Whereas those of us on the outside, because we don’t feel that loyalty is relevant, we say, ‘Look at the dishonesty. Isn’t it obvious this is wrong?’”

The study, Does Loyalty Trump Honesty? Moral Judgments of Loyalty-driven Deceit,” appeared July 12 in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Hildreth’s co-author is Cameron Anderson of the University of California, Berkeley.

Hildreth and Anderson were interested in what happens when loyalty clashes with values like honesty and fairness. To find out, they worked with nearly 1,400 study participants over the course of four studies.

The researchers asked a group of online study participants to read about an actor who took part in a study. Some were told he had signed a pledge of loyalty to a group; others were told he signed a pledge to be fair or simply promised to complete the study. Some participants were told the actor had misrepresented his scores on several tasks, which benefited his group; others were told he had reported his scores honestly. The participants then answered questions about whether the actor behaved ethically.

A different group of participants was placed in those exact scenarios in real life and given the chance to lie to benefit their group. Participants were then asked to judge the ethicality of their own behavior.

The researchers found when people were called to be loyal, their moral views of deceit and honesty flipped. Loyal liars viewed their deceit as ethical, even though their actions harmed others. And disloyal truth-tellers viewed their behavior as less ethical, despite acting honestly. Independent judges viewed loyal lies differently, and as less ethical than honesty.

“When we’re in a situation that demands loyalty, all of us are probably unaware that those loyalties are influencing the ways in which we think of our actions,” Hildreth said. “They may prompt us to do things and even think about things in a fundamentally different way than perhaps they would if we were outside of those contexts.”

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Gillian Smith