Limited capacity to lie: Cognitive load interferes with being dishonest

Anna E. van 't Veer, Mariëlle Stel, Ilja van Beest

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

52 Citations (Scopus)
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The current study tested the boundary conditions of ethical decision-making by increasing cognitive load. This manipulation is believed to hinder deliberation, and, as we argue, reduces the cognitive capacity needed for a self-serving bias to occur. As telling a lie is believed to be more cognitively taxing than telling the truth, we hypothesized that participants would be more honest under high cognitive load than low cognitive load. 173 participants anonymously rolled a die three times and reported their outcomes — of which one of the rolls would be paid out — while either under high or low cognitive load. For the roll that determined pay, participants under low cognitive load, but not under high cognitive load, reported die rolls that were significantly different from a uniform (honest) distribution. The reported outcome of this roll was also significantly higher in the low load condition than in the high load condition, suggesting that participants in the low load condition lied to get higher pay. This pattern was not observed for the second and third roll where participants knew the rolls were not going to be paid out and where therefore lying would not serve self-interest. Results thus indicate that having limited cognitive capacity will unveil a tendency to be honest in a situation where having more cognitive capacity would have enabled one to serve self-interest by lying.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)199-206
JournalJudgment and Decision Making
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2014
Externally publishedYes


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