In Negotiation, Is Benevolent Deception Acceptable?

Contrary to popular belief, certain types of lies can actually strengthen bonds between parties, but benevolent deception is not without risk.

By — on / Negotiation Skills

benevolent deception

Do you behave as honestly as possible in your negotiations? Do you view honesty as a critical attribute in your negotiation counterparts?  You probably answered these questions in the affirmative: Like many of us, you view deliberate deception in negotiation to be both unethical and risky. But what about benevolent deception, or the act of lying to benefit or protect the other party?

Now read the following negotiation scenarios.

In each of them, a negotiator lies (or hides the truth) in a way that benefits another person. Are these lies unethical? Do they make you view the negotiator as untrustworthy?

Sylvie, a graphic designer, hears through the grapevine that Bob, one of her favorite clients, is facing financial difficulties due to his wife being laid off from her job. Making Bob a low offer for a new project they’ve been negotiating, Sylvie lies about how much time she expects it to take her.

Manny, a colleague Rex is mentoring, represents their negotiating team in his first major presentation. To Rex’s disappointment, Manny seems very nervous and fumbles through his talk. Believing that an honest assessment would set Manny back further, Rex tells him that he did a good job and schedules some time to discuss relaxation techniques.

A married couple, Pam and Leroy, are deciding where to go on vacation this year. Because of their very different tastes, such discussions normally trigger lengthy debates. But this year, when Pam suggests that they take a cruise, Leroy readily agrees, lying that he’s always wanted to go on one. Pam has been feeling low lately, and he hopes that a cruise will lift her spirits.

Past negotiation research has found unequivocally that deception is toxic to negotiation. When detected, lies and other forms of deception trigger negative emotions, prompt retaliation, and irrevocably damage trust between negotiators. But most research on deception has studied lies that have selfish motives, such as a negotiator lying to get a better deal at a counterpart’s expense, write Emma E. Levine and Maurice E. Schweitzer of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School in a new study published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

Yet as the three anecdotes above suggest, not all forms of deception are selfish. As children, we are taught benevolent deception: to say we like the food that’s put in front of us, to pretend we’re happy to receive socks for our birthday, and to suppress our potentially hurtful observations about strangers. In other words, we are taught to lie or hide the truth in the service of others’ feelings and desires.

Given this socialization, you might not be surprised to learn that adults lie in roughly 20% of their everyday social interactions, according to research by Bella M. DePaulo of the University of Virginia and her colleagues, and that most of these lies are prosocial—that is, they are intended to benefit the person being lied to.

Do we view benevolent deception as immoral or acceptable? How might such lies, if detected, affect trust between people? Levine and Schweitzer examined these questions in a series of experiments.

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Lies, lies, and more lies

We tell prosocial lies for various reasons: for example, to protect another person’s feelings and beliefs, avoid conflict, help us out of uncomfortable or embarrassing situations, or help someone reach his goals.

There are two main types of prosocial lies, according to Levine and Schweitzer:

1. Altruistic lies are the false, misleading statements we make to help someone at a cost to ourselves. Sylvie, for example, wanted to make a financial sacrifice to help Bob through a tough time.

2. Benevolent deception, or mutually beneficial lies are false, misleading statements that are intended to benefit both the person we’re lying to and ourselves. For example, Rex told Manny that he did a good job with the hope of improving Manny’s future performance, a result that would benefit both of them and their company.

Of course, there can be gray areas between altruistic and mutually beneficial lies. For example, Sylvie may view her financial sacrifice as insignificant compared with the personal satisfaction she gains from helping out Bob and his family.

Prosocial lies shouldn’t be confused with so-called white lies, write Levine and Schweitzer. White lies tend to be inconsequential and undetectable—such as lying to a counterpart that you like his new glasses—whereas prosocial lies can have higher stakes.

When altruism trumps honesty

To find out how prosocial lies affect trust, Levine and Schweitzer first looked at how people react to altruistic lies. They had participants engage in economic games and varied the incentives associated with lying and truth telling.

In one experiment conducted online, participants were paired with counterparts who had the opportunity to lie to them about the outcome of a coin flip. If a counterpart lied to the participant (for example, said the coin landed on heads when it really landed on tails), the participant would earn $1, and the counterpart would earn $1.75. If a counterpart told the truth about the outcome of the coin flip, the participant would earn nothing, and the counterpart would earn $2. That is, the counterpart could help the participant by telling an altruistic lie that was somewhat costly to the counterpart.

In the experiment, participants were more trusting of counterparts who lied to help them than they were of those who personally benefited from telling the truth. In another economic game called the “Trust Game,” participants were given $1 and told they could either keep it or pass it to their counterpart from the coin-flip game.

If they passed the dollar, its value tripled to $3, and the counterpart could choose to either keep the $3 or return half of it to the participant. Thus, passing the initial dollar is an act of trust; it reflects the belief that the counterpart can be relied on to return half the money in the future.

In this game, participants were more willing to trust counterparts who had lied to them about the coin toss than counterparts who had been selfish but honest. Participants also rated the liars as more benevolent and trustworthy than the truth tellers, even though they recognized the liars were more deceptive.

In another experiment, participants also trusted individuals who lied to help other people more than they trusted individuals who told the truth to benefit themselves. In other words, participants did not need to personally benefit from the lie to judge the liar favorably. Overall, these results suggest that prosocial lies increase rather than decrease trust that is rooted in perceptions of benevolence. So when we’re deciding whether to loan money to others, seek emotional support from them, or share sensitive information with them, the results suggest that we’ll first examine their intentions—and if they seem benevolent, we won’t be bothered by evidence of deception. For many trusting decisions, we care about protection, benevolence, and kindness more than honesty.

However, Levine and Schweitzer clarify that not all types of trust are benefited by prosocial deception. Some trust decisions, like the willingness to rely on someone’s claims, are deeply rooted in perceptions of honesty and integrity. In Levine and Schweitzer’s final experiment, for example, participants had to make a trust decision rooted in perceptions of integrity—specifically, participants had to decide if they should trust a partner’s advice about whether a jar contained an odd or even number of coins. This time, participants looked more closely at how honestly the partner had behaved in previous interactions than at how benevolent those actions were. Participants did not trust the claims of individuals who had told prosocial lies in the past. Thus, we may view honesty to be more important than benevolence when we need to personally rely on someone’s words.

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Is benevolent deception benign?

Contrary to the widespread belief that deception, when detected, always damages trust in negotiation and other exchanges, Levine and Schweitzer’s study suggests that lying can actually increase trust when lies clearly have benevolent intentions. In fact, our attitudes toward deception may be hypocritical: We denounce lying yet also tell prosocial lies and benefit from the prosocial lies of others.

“Managers should . . . consider if honesty is always the best policy,” write Levine and Schweitzer. But openly advocating prosocial lying within organizations could be a risky move, for several reasons.

First, viewing prosocial lies as acceptable and encouraging other negotiators to do the same could lead us to engage in or tolerate benevolent deception. Unfortunately, unethical behavior often occurs on a slippery slope, write Harvard Business School professor Max H. Bazerman and Notre Dame University professor Ann E. Tenbrunsel in their book Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What’s Right and What to Do about It (Princeton University Press, 2011). That is, we justify a tiny ethical infraction and then allow ourselves to commit increasingly more serious infractions as time passes. We also are less likely to notice the unethical behavior of others when it occurs gradually rather than all at once.

Second, both altruistic and benevolent deception can be less benign than they may appear. Suppose, for example, that a bank officer grants a loan to an under-qualified friend. To protect her pride, the banker doesn’t tell her that she was the beneficiary of an exception. This decision would not only be a bad bet for the bank but also set the applicant up for failure and discriminate against applicants who lack such connections.

Third, we may find ourselves telling seemingly prosocial lies for reasons that are actually selfish. In the real world, an individual’s true motivations may be much murkier than they were in Levine and Schweitzer’s experiments. For example, Leroy may think he’s lying for Pam’s benefit about wanting to go on a cruise. But if, deep down, he just doesn’t want to argue about where to go, he may be setting them both up for an unhappy vacation. Similarly, in our business negotiations, we may be tempted to avoid conflict by justifying a lie or an omission as prosocial.

Given these risks, negotiators would be wise to think twice before telling a seemingly prosocial lie (or omitting an important truth), as there may be a more satisfying way to meet their goals. For example, rather than secretly giving Bob a discount on her services, Sylvie could reveal to him that she heard about his wife’s layoff and then ask whether he would consider accepting a onetime discount or payment in installments. As compared with a lie, this direct approach arguably demonstrates greater respect for Bob and creates an opportunity for a more honest working relationship.

In your organization, rather than uniformly outlawing or, conversely, condoning prosocial deception, you might instead open up a dialogue about its prevalence in society and encourage individual negotiators to search their consciences to determine where their ethical boundaries lie.

Our decisions and behavior in negotiation often diverge from our ethical standards. By examining our tendencies, we can start to live up to the high standards we set for ourselves and others.

3 truths about benevolent deception

1. Prosocial lies are common, despite widespread condemnation of deception in our society.

2. We are likely to tolerate deception if it is intended to help us.

3. Negotiators can avoid the potential risks of prosocial lying by identifying more honest means of communicating their goals.

What do you say? Is benevolent deception OK in negotiation?

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Build powerful negotiation skills and become a better dealmaker and leader. Download our FREE special report, Negotiation Skills: Negotiation Strategies and Negotiation Techniques to Help You Become a Better Negotiator, from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.

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