Paper: When lying feels the right thing to do

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Together with co-authors Ronald Poppe and Ross Anderson, I published a paper in Frontiers in Psychology on the effect of rejection on dishonest behavior. In the paper When Lying Feels the Right Thing to Do we demonstrate in three online studies that rejection negatively impacts people’s emotions, and subsequently elicits more dishonest behavior. The results of this study suggest that preventing people from feeling rejected, for example by enhancing transparent practices, can help reduce dishonest behaviors such as insurance fraud.

Full reference:

Van Der Zee, S., Anderson, R. J., & Poppe, R. W. (2016). When lying feels the right thing to do. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, article 734.


Fraud is a pervasive and challenging problem that costs society large amounts of money. By no means all fraud is committed by ‘professional criminals’: much is done by ordinary people who indulge in small-scale opportunistic deception. In this paper, we set out to investigate when people behave dishonestly, for example by committing fraud, in an online context. We conducted three studies to investigate how the rejection of one’s efforts, operationalized in different ways, affected the amount of cheating and information falsification. Study 1 demonstrated that people behave more dishonestly when rejected. Studies 2 and 3 were conducted in order to disentangle the confounding factors of the nature of the rejection and the financial rewards that are usually associated with dishonest behavior. It was demonstrated that rejection in general, rather than the nature of a rejection, caused people to behave more dishonestly. When a rejection was based on subjective grounds, dishonest behavior increased with approximately 10%, but this difference was not statistically significant. We subsequently measured whether dishonesty was driven by the financial loss associated with rejection, or emotional factors such as a desire for revenge. We found that rejected participants were just as dishonest when their cheating did not led to financial gain. However, they felt stronger emotions when there was no money involved. This seems to suggest that upon rejection, emotional involvement, especially a reduction in happiness, drives dishonest behavior more strongly than a rational cost-benefit analysis. These results indicate that rejection causes people to behave more dishonestly, specifically in online settings. Firms wishing to deter customers and employees from committing fraud may therefore benefit from transparency and clear policy guidelines, discouraging people to submit claims that are likely to be rejected.