In a recent paper with Enrico Rubaltelli (University of Padova) and Daphna Motro (University of Arizona), we asked whether people are more likely to lie by withholding the truth (i.e., a lie of omission) or by actively breaking the rules (i.e., lie of commission). Imagine that you are selling your car and the engine is on its last legs. A lie of commission would be telling a potential customer that the engine works perfectly, whereas a lie of omission would be failing to mention the problem and let the customer find out about it on his own. From a utilitarian point of view, the two lies should be the same: After all, lying is always wrong, and the way it is brought about should not affect our judgments. However, philosophers and psychologists found that the two lies are considered differently by observers and by the law. To date, most of the work on omission and commission focused on moral judgment, and we know very little about how this distinction is reflected into actual cheating behavior.
To answer this question, we devised a simple “Heads or Tails” game. We told participants that the computer would flip a coin and determine whether they won or lost the game. Only if the coin landed on Heads participants would win a monetary prize, however, unbeknownst to participants, the coin always landed on Tails. Participants learned that the software had some bugs and might not be always accurate in determining whether they won or lost the game. Participants in the commission condition received correct feedback that they did not win the game. Participants in the omission condition saw the coin landing on the losing side, but were incorrectly informed that they had won the game. Next, we asked all participants whether they had won or not. Since they were informed about the possible bugs, participants in the commission condition could overtly lie and report that the computer was wrong, and that they actually won. On the contrary, participants in the omission condition could simply fail to report any error and cash the prize.
Across four studies, we consistently found that participants were far more likely to lie by withholding the truth (omission) than by overtly reporting that the computer was wrong (commission). In addition, we found that lies of omission were deemed as more acceptable, legitimate, and justifiable than those of commission.
Our findings rely on a simple cheating task, when in reality ethical dilemmas can be far more complex. This notwithstanding, they can tell us a bit more about when and why people are likely to bend the rules and cheat. Within organizations, for instance, employees can act dishonestly by not reporting ethical violations, failing to speak up, or colluding with corrupt managers, especially when doing so begets personal benefits. Similarly, sellers can “forget” to mention a hidden problem when selling a product. Increasing the transparency of several business practices and limiting situations in which people can passively, or easily, profit for unethical behavior seems a promising avenue to foster compliance with ethical rules.