Episode Transcript – When Lies Build Trust

Stories and Strategies Podcast

Episode 79

Guests: Emma Levine, PhD and Maurice Schweitzer, PhD

Published January 8, 2023

Listen to this episode

Doug Downs (00:09):

In the 2009 RomCom, The Invention of Lying, life for Jennifer Garner and Rickey Gervais is an alternative reality world where lying doesn’t exist. They’re on a date at a restaurant sitting together face to face when Garner’s phone rings.

Jennifer Garner (The Invention of Lying) (00:27):

Sorry, it’s my mom. I think she’s probably checking on the date. It won’t take long. Hello? Yes, I’m with him right now. No, not very attractive. No, he doesn’t make much money so right. Seems nice. Kind of funny. A bit fat. Has a funny little snub nose. Kind of like a frog in a facial.

Ricky Gervais (The Invention of Lying) (00:54):

Yeah, but

Jennifer Garner (The Invention of Lying) (00:55):

No, I won’t be sleeping with him tonight. Nope. Probably not even a kiss. Okay, you too.

Speaker 4 (00:55):


Jennifer Garner (The Invention of Lying) (01:03):

Sorry about that

Ricky Gervais (The Invention of Lying) (01:03):

It’s all right. Don’t think Oh, no. How is your Mum?

Jennifer Garner (The Invention of Lying) (01:06):

She’s alright.

Ricky Gervais (The Invention of Lying) (01:07):


Doug Downs (01:12):

The early parts of the movie create comedy in juxtaposition to the fact we tell lots of lies in everyday life. Sometimes we fib with the intention of not hurting someone or possibly making them feel better. But what about always tell the truth or is there a social benefit to some lies? Today on Stories and Strategies, the truth about lying.


My name is Doug Downs Music Off the Top from the movie, The Invention of Lying. Catch the Wind by Donovan, the theme song. My guests this week are Emma Levine and Maurice Schweitzer. Hello to both of you.

Emma Levine (02:12):

Hello. Happy to be here.

Doug Downs (02:15):

Emma. You’re joining us from Chicago. How are things in the windy city?

Emma Levine (02:19):

They’re great. I’m looking out the window. The snow is falling. It is cold. Typical winter in Chicago

Doug Downs (02:28):

As it should be. Winters are cold and summers, my God with the humidity they are hot, hot, hot. Emma, you are an associate professor of behavioral science and the Charles E. Merrill Faculty Scholar at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. You have your PhD from the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. Your research has been featured in top psychology management and marketing journals including Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and Psychological Science.


And Maurice, you are in Philadelphia today. How are things there?

Maurice Schweitzer (03:06):

Terrific. Unseasonably warm but sunny.

Doug Downs (03:10):

That will change that. That will change. Maurice, you are the Cecilia Yen Koo Professor of Operations, Information and Decisions and Management at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. You have a PhD in operations and information management from the Wharton School and a BA in Economics. You’ve published over a hundred articles on trust, negotiations and emotions, and you co-authored the book Friend and Foe, when to cooperate, when to Compete, and How to Succeed at Both. That sounds like a good read actually.

Maurice Schweitzer (03:43):

It is

Doug Downs (03:43):

You’re the Director of the Wharton Behavioral Lab. And first things first with this episode this is a series of scientific studies that you conducted. So because it’s science, let’s talk about the methodology that has to be first. Just very quickly, how did you go about doing these studies?

Emma Levine (04:02):

Sure, so these are laboratory studies. We conducted them in the lab using incentivized experiments. So what that means is two anonymous strangers would kind of come into a space, they’d be paired with each other through a computer. One person will call them. The communicator has the opportunity to lie to the other person, the target and that lie either caused the target to win money or lose money. And so if it caused them to win money, we’d call that a pro-social lie. It helps the target earn more, do better. And so then we examine how much the target of that lie trusted the communicator based on the communicator’s decision to lie or tell the truth. And we use a couple different paradigms in this lab to measure trust. So one measure which measures benevolence based trust is called the trust game. It captures kind of a person’s willingness to lend money or share money with another person expecting someone to return it. And we also measured integrity based trust which captures the target’s willingness to rely on the communicator’s words

Doug Downs (05:13):

And despite everything we talk about in society that lying is bad, we tell our kids don’t lie. Always tell the truth. Honesty, the best policy, the reality scientifically is if it’s a pro-social lie, you can lie to me and I can know that you are lying to me while you’re lying to me. If I receive that as of some form of personal benefit in some way, I’m okay with it. I’m not only okay with it, you just became my best friend.

Maurice Schweitzer (05:47):

I think that’s right, Doug. I think what’s so interesting is there, there’s all this classical work presuming that deception’s bad. And if you look at the statements, not only parents and teachers, but also corporations and their mission statements, they talk about the importance of honesty. And yet there are this, there’s a broad class of cases where we not only tolerate, but really endorse and certainly model lying. Where I could say that talk was really interesting or thank you so much for asking that question. I love your haircut. That souffle was delicious. There’s so many things that we might say that are polite, but they’re also, and a lot of Emma’s work has really taken a deep dive into this. There are also some really important cases like in medical domains where deception is also preferred.

Doug Downs (06:51):

How do you mean?

Emma Levine (06:52):

Well, some of my work has looked at this lately. I mean, you can think about the case of a false hope in medicine as Maurice alluded to. And there are circumstances both in the us but certainly cross-culturally where patients really value hope at the end of life. Even false hope to live with dignity, to believe that things are going to be okay even if the facts suggest otherwise. And this is a very specific but common form of pro-social lying that people right often endorse it. And in some of my work I’ve found that patients actually want these types of lies more often than physicians are willing to offer them.

Doug Downs (07:34):

I get that. One of hte impetuses for doing this episode was a discussion I had with several colleagues, <laugh> about Santa Claus and the lie we tell our children involving Santa Claus, so to speak. What I’m getting from you is it’s a good lie if the kids are really into it and they enjoy it, we’re good.

Maurice Schweitzer (07:59):

I mean, think what’s so interesting in this broader puzzle is how we tell our kids never lie, always tell me the truth, don’t lie to me. Honesty is always the right thing to do. And then we turn around and engage deception and even model it, but then exhort them to tell grandma you love the sweater and don’t tell grandma she looks terrible. You can’t say that <laugh> modeling an endorsing deception. And I think, yeah, lying about Santa Claus is this fabrication that could yield really great benefits for fbu.

Emma Levine (08:47):

But I’ll also chime in and mention that part of what our research suggests is there are these two forms of trust and there’s also kind of this short-term consequence and long-term consequence. So yes, I might love and revel in the fantasy of Santa Claus, I might love your polite compliments. I might choose to be friends with you. I trust you to take care of me. That’s all established in our work. But we also find that even these pro-social lies that do have these short affiliative trust benefits do reduce trust in someone’s words in the long run. And so it is important to be aware of that dynamic because yeah, children might actually love Santa Claus, but then when they’re told something later in life about another myth they might write doubt their parents’ words. And we see that right in close relationships and feedback in a lot of settings. And so there are these dual benefits and costs to even these pro-social lives.

Maurice Schweitzer (09:49):

And I think what’s what Emma’s saying is incredibly important. So I think the short-term and long-term effects are one distinction. Another distinction as Emma was alluding to is this idea of benevolence, sort of kindness, caring warmth and pro-social lives do that. When I say your haircut looks terrific or that was a really interesting presentation or I loved your podcast, there could be warmth that we’re demonstrating this benevolence and then this different dimension of trust, which is the integrity. Do I trust the honesty veracity of your behavior and pro-social lies are pushing things in these two different ways.

Doug Downs (10:37):

Well maybe the difference is if I tell you a lie and you know it’s a lie, maybe we have that short term. Okay, we’re good. Longer term, I gotcha, I’m not necessarily going to trust everything you say. What about an altruistic lie where I lied to you and there’s actually a cost to me? Can you give me an example of what that is where I take a hit for telling the lie, but I do so just for helping you.

Emma Levine (11:06):

Yeah. So we mentioned kind of the medical domain and here there’s also circumstances in which people conceal their own illnesses. So imagine a parent not revealing that they’re ill to their child. It’s actually really hard to battle that in. It’s really hard not to be open. It would maybe be easier if they were, but they wanna protect their child from this trauma. So that’s just one case. I’d say these altruistic lies still have the same dynamic, which you recognize the person’s good intentions, you see them as moral, you see them as a good friend, as a good family member. But even those lies, right? You might wonder the next time someone says you’re okay, they’re okay. You just have that little seed of doubt of is this true?

Doug Downs (11:55):

Do I give the person credit for telling the altruistic lie when I realize that’s what it is? Do I give them credit for that?

Maurice Schweitzer (12:01):

Yeah, absolutely. I mean the credit we give them is this kindness, this warmth, this. They’re looking out for my best interest. So we see people as kind and we want our friends to be kind and in many cases we want the kind friend over the honest friend. And kindness is so important. And I think one of the key insights from our work is this importance of kindness. And we’re kindness is one important principle. Honesty is another one. Often they go together, but sometimes they don’t.

Doug Downs (12:51):

Multitasking. Yes, yes, we’ve been told we can’t really do it effectively, but that doesn’t really stop. Any of us does it right now. No doubt. You are multitasking. You’re listening to a podcast and you’re going for a walk or maybe doing some work around the house or you’re driving somewhere or maybe <laugh> at work, but you’ve found that a podcast is a great way to get information in a way that doesn’t grab you by the caller and say, stop what you’re doing and read me or watch my video. A podcast weaves its way into your life. It doesn’t try to take control of your time and people like that at stories and strategies. We produce podcasts for clients anywhere in the world. Maybe a podcast is right for you or your organization. Want to talk about it, send me an email personally, Doug stories and strategies.ca and we’ll set something up. Let’s talk podcasts.


Oh, I think what you’re saying is if I’m being honest, but I’m being hurtful, there’s a chance that the receiver does not see the benefit of that.

Emma Levine (14:05):

Yeah, especially in the short run. There’s an immediate hit and feeling of upset that comes with being hurt even through the truth.

Doug Downs (14:16):

Does what constitutes a pro-social lie? Does it look the same across all cultures? Are we all the same?

Maurice Schweitzer (14:24):

Well, yeah, I think that’s a great question. I know that pro-social lying transcends cultures and it’s common and they’re different expectations and different norms about what we say. Our investigation didn’t look cross culturally at this but I know just from linguistics and sort of the kinds of conversations we have in Asian cultures and sort of what does a no mean and what can we say and the loss of face concerns that pro-social lying is incredibly common throughout the world.

Doug Downs (15:08):

Are there different types of pro-social lies though? Can I tell a pro-social lie one way here in North America as opposed to in Europe as opposed to in Asia as opposed to in Australia?

Emma Levine (15:21):

Yeah. I think what constitutes a pro-social lie and how people will react is culturally determined. So the reaction, this bump of warmth and kindness is driven by the perception that this person was genuinely motivated to help me. And so if there’s a norm that we’re all candid towards each other and we give each other blunt truths, let’s say, which is the case in Israel and other places, then a lie that kind of flouts, that norm that would seem polite here might not be given credit there because we don’t prize that type of politeness. We prize candor and then we could see that move in the other direction. In other cultures Maurice alluded to kind of East Asian cultures where there’s norms of saving faith. So there politeness especially across hierarchy might be prized even more. And so it would be seen as very appropriate, very moral and very well intended to tell certain pro-social lives of politeness.

Maurice Schweitzer (16:24):

And in fact, actually I have a study in Southeast Asia where we looked in the medical domain we looked at cancer patients with stage four cancer, so very advanced forms of cancer. And the vast majority of those patients didn’t have a very accurate sense at all of their health status. Many thought that they were on the road to recovery and almost all of them were wildly optimistic about their lifespan. And by the time we finished the study, half of them had already died.

Doug Downs (17:07):

See, and I would take that really negatively. I would see that as a bad habit. Is it though or is it a good thing?

Maurice Schweitzer (17:13):

Well, there that was the norm. I mean the family was complicit in the deception and they’re just different norms. So I think as Emma’s sort of underscoring that, what are the norms for candor? What are the norms for pro-social lies and ideas about politeness are really wrapped up in this. So what is the polite thing to say?

Doug Downs (17:39):

The whole concept of lying and I’m benefiting from it. It’s a pro-social lie. I can’t help but think that there’s there. This just adds to corruption, specifically politics come to mind of the mind that conservative minded voters, they want a conman, whereas liberal minded voters, they prefer a con artist. You know what I mean?

Maurice Schweitzer (18:08):

Well, I think what’s really interesting about politics is that we’ve come to expect a certain level of deception and we think the promises politicians make on a campaign trail should be taken with a grain of salt. And so I mean it’s really unclear and we see in George Santos this sort of <laugh> crossing the line or where are we in a post-truth world? And I think what’s interesting is, again, the sort of norms and expectations. What are we playing poker here? Are we expecting people to bluff? Are there norms of deception that are within the rules that we’re playing by? And when have we crossed the line? And I think what’s important is for us to have a sense of we’re playing the same game. So I understand when a politician promises to cut my taxes, what that really means is that they’d like to cut taxes.

Emma Levine (19:24):

Yeah. I think what’s interesting that Maurice alluded to earlier too is though this kind of double standard that we don’t openly talk about this. So I have these new studies, which I really love showing that actually in the domain of politics, we’d prefer politicians to say it’s never okay to lie and take this really absolute stance and then go on and lie, be a blatant hypocrite. Then to admit that there’s nuance, that there’s nuance. And sometimes you have to be flexible. And politicians also, this is a real sample of us elected officials. They anticipate this. And so they know that in public they’re supposed to say you never lie, even if they go on to lie. And so there’s this kind of open knowledge that this is part of politicking, but we aren’t able to discuss what are the bounds of that because we don’t discuss it openly. We are dishonest about dishonesty.

Maurice Schweitzer (20:22):

Yeah. Lemme sort of build on that if I could, Doug is what I’d say is I think the sort of the box that em and I are opening is the idea that there are these rules, these social rules about lying and we don’t talk about them, we model them. We have expectations in our mind about them, but we don’t teach our kids about them. Teachers don’t teach students about them. And in corporations we’re not very clear with our employees about what it is and isn’t okay to lie. And then in the politic sort of space, we have these norms and expectations and many people seem to get what the rules are, but because we’re not explicit about it, we’re going to see people cross the line, make mistakes, and we’ve created this ambiguous space around lying in a way that could be disambiguated.

Emma Levine (21:28):

Back to this initial question about the concept of lying. Is it okay, does it lead to corruption? I mean, I do think there are all these rules, but I do wanna reinforce that even when you do it under the right rules and the right circumstances, even the be in the best cases can still erode this long-term trust in words. And so that is something we see happening in institutions. That is something we see happening in politics, in public health, in a lot of domains on a global sphere right now. And so there is a cost that we need to be aware of.

Doug Downs (22:10):

I love this. Thank you both so much for your time today. Really appreciate it.

Maurice Schweitzer (22:14):

Oh, thank you very much.

Emma Levine (22:16):

Thank you. This was great.

Doug Downs (22:17):

If you’d like to send a message to my guests, Maurice Schweitzer and Emma Levine, we have their email addresses in the show notes, stories and strategies is a co-production of J G R communications and stories and strategies, podcasts. The pro social thing for you to do is leave a rating on either Apple or Spotify for us. Five stars is very pro social, we’re best friends then. Thanks for listening.