Opinion

Published

The dark side of collaboration: If one lies, the rest are likely to follow

6 Mins

According to Ori Weisel from the University of Nottingham, while much is known about individual immoral behaviour, little is known about the collaborative roots of corruption. So, researchers from the university focused on cases where working together meant violating moral rules – such as lying – at a possible cost to a larger group, or the organisation to which they belong.

Lying, experts have suggested, begins early on in life. By the age of four, 90 per cent of children have grasped the concept of lying. This, it said, often comes from a child’s observations of its parents, or when parents unconsciously teach a child to use white lies in order not to hurt someone’s feelings. 

A 2002 study conducted by the University of Massachusetts also found that 60 per cent of adults can’t have a ten minute conversation without lying at least once. In fact, when the conversations were played back to the volunteers of the study, they were shocked at how many they told.

More importantly, most lies were unimportant, little things that we think will make us look better or more likeable. In a survey by Lovefilm, 30 per cent of respondents had lied about seeing The Godfather. It may be an epic movie, but surely it doesn’t warrant a lie if you haven’t seen it.

To test whether previous studies were indeed correct, the University of Nottingham’s researchers created a die-rolling game to see if working together might also make lying more likely. In the game, volunteers could adhere to one of two competing moral norms: collaborate or be honest. 

Read more about psychology in business:

Player A privately rolled a six-sided die first, then reported the result by typing the number onto a computer. The outcome was relayed to player B, who then privately rolled and reported the results as well. This would go on for 20 rounds. Each time the number was identical, the volunteers would earn £6 each – if they didn’t then the players got nothing. Of course, most ended up lying in order to win more money.

“Collaboration led to a lot of dishonesty,” said Weisel. “Many people seem to lose their inhibitions completely. Humans are an exceptionally cooperative species, which is at least partly driven by deeply ingrained moral sentiments that help to build trust and achieve mutual beneficial outcomes. It is now clear that there can be tension between two fundamental moral obligations – to tell the truth or to join forces in collaboration.”

People bend the truth more when it improves not only their own but also others’ outcomes, when their lies benefit a cause or another person they care about, Weisel said. He added that group-serving dishonesty is modulated by oxytocin – a socially-bonding hormone.

The study found the highest levels of corrupt collaboration occurred when parties shared profits equally, and were reduced when either player’s incentive to lie was decreased or removed.

Of course, player B would normally be deemed the one up to no good, however, it wasn’t entirely one-sided. Over 20 rounds, the average of each players’ rolls should have settled around 3.5, but both players’ averages were closer to five. Player A was likely reporting higher numbers than was actually being rolled, driving up the amount of money the partners in crime walked away with.

“We thought there would be more lying in a collaborative setting, but we didn’t realise there would be so much completely brazen lying,” Weisel said. In half of the experiments, the B players reported matching rolls in all 20 rounds – “which is virtually impossible if you think about the chance of that happening,” he added. 

Furthermore, B players were likely taking cues from their partners: they were much more likely to cheat when A players brazenly rolled impossibly consistent high numbers – like 20 sixes in a row. “Player A inflated the rolls and thereby set the stage for player B,” Weisel explained.

The researchers suggested that organisations may be paying a (corruption) premium for having their employees team-up and work together.

“It only goes to show how powerful the collaborative setting is,” Weisel said. “People are willing to pay the moral cost of lying even if they don’t stand to get any material benefit – the only benefit is the joy of collaboration.”

Share this story

Investment funding has fuelled eMoov’s growth – and it’s hungry for more
The 4 London design shows that will unleash your company’s creative streak this autumn
Send this to a friend