General Psychology

Lying to Level the Playing Field


How Dishonesty Can Help or Hurt Others

The article “Lying to Level the Playing Field: Why People May Dishonestly Help or Hurt Others to Create Equity” was written in 2010 by Francesca Gino and Lamar Pierce. It was published in the Journal of Business Ethics.  The outlined studies were conducted at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Carnegie Mellon University. The purpose of the studies was to determine the impact of dishonest behavior on an individual’s wellbeing and reputation. The authors suggested the hypothesis that motivations such as financial or opportune gain can be outweighed with moral reasoning, resulting in dishonest, but altruistic behavior (Gino, et al., 2010).

            The first two studies randomly selected participants and assigned them to one of two groups, solvers or graders.  Each participant was also granted a title of wealthy or poor and then paired: one solver to one grader.  The solvers worked to solve anagram tasks and the graders were given the opportunity to dishonestly help them or to dishonestly hurt them (by purposely misreporting their results). Wealthy graders were incentivized to be dishonest. The third study was a slightly tweaked version of the first two studies and measured the justification of dishonesty when it was purportedly done to restore equality.

The article concludes that dishonest behavior has a negative impact on an individual’s health, psychological wellbeing, and reputation (Gino, et al., 2010). Fortunately, however, evidence is outlined which supports the idea that people favor moral reasoning resulting in equitable outcomes for all persons.  The study also revealed that a person’s performance will be weaker if they perceive unfairness (Gino, et al., 2010). Essentially, people’s emotions have a direct impact on their likelihood to perform dishonestly and whether or not their dishonest actions will leave them feeling guilty or justified.            

The results of these studies show clear concerns for equity, but also strangely comfortable vibes of natural balance. Like a referee awarding a penalty shot to balance an injustice during a game, many of the wealthy graders in the studies chose to be dishonest, justifying their actions as altruistic. And a lot of the decisions that these dishonest, but altruistic offenders made were likely based upon the perceived concepts of social norm and behavioral norm.  The idea of doing the right thing and treating others with equality, has the power to favorably manipulate behavior even when there is no perceived consequence to dishonest, selfish behavior.


Gino, F., & Pierce, L. (2010). Lying to level the playing field: Why people may dishonestly help or hurt others to create equity: JBE JBE. Journal of Business Ethics, 95, 89-103. doi:

You may also like...