How prefactual thinking licenses dishonesty

Accepting untruths lies in our capacity to imagine the future, new research finds

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“We will fail over a thousand times till we get this thing to work, but we will get it on the 1001st time” said Elizabeth Holmes, founder and CEO of Theranos. Holmes raised over $700 million for her company based on the lie that her company’s technology could run hundreds of medical tests with only a drop or two of blood. Holmes’ belief that her company’s technology would one day be able to run the desired tests did not make it true that the technology could currently run these tests. However, it may have helped her justify her lies. Therein lies a problem laid bare by recent research by London Business School PhD student Beth Anne Helgason and Professor of Organisational Behaviour Daniel Effron.

The research findings, first published by the American Psychological Association in mid-April and recently featured in the Financial Times, show that people are more tolerant of falsehoods if they believe the falsehood might one day come true. For example, in one experiment, researchers asked over 400 MBA students from 59 different countries to imagine that a friend lied on their CV, claiming to know financial modelling skills despite having no prior experience. When students imagined that their friend might develop financial modelling skills in the future, they thought it was less unethical for the friend to lie claiming they knew financial modelling now.

This effect of excusing falsehoods people imagine might one day become true is particularly strong if the fiction aligns with people’s beliefs. Results also show that prompting research participants to think carefully before judging the falsehoods presented was not enough to dampen this effect. Indeed, people are not only more willing to forgive such falsehoods, they are also more willing to spread misinformation if they think it might become true in the future.

As Beth Anne points out, people cannot fact-check what might become true in the future and this is the central problem.

The article: “It Might Become True: How Prefactual Thinking Licenses Dishonesty”, by Beth Anne Helgason, and Daniel Effron, was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, online on 14 April 2022.