It Might Become True: How Prefactual Thinking Licenses Dishonesty

Helgason, B A and Effron, D (2022) It Might Become True: How Prefactual Thinking Licenses Dishonesty. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 123 (5). pp. 909-940. ISSN 0022-3514 OPEN ACCESS


In our “post-truth” era, misinformation spreads not only because people believe falsehoods, but also because people sometimes give dishonesty a moral pass. The present research examines how the moral judgments that people form about dishonesty depend not only on what they know to be true, but also on what they imagine might become true. In six studies (N=3,607), people judged a falsehood as less unethical to tell in the present when we randomly assigned them to entertain prefactual thoughts about how it might become true in the future. This effect emerged with participants from 59 nations judging falsehoods about consumer products, professional skills, and controversial political issues—and the effect was particularly pronounced when participants were inclined to accept that the falsehood might become true. Moreover, thinking prefactually about how a falsehood might become true made people more inclined to share the falsehood on social media. We theorized that, even when people recognize a falsehood as factually incorrect, these prefactual thoughts reduce how unethical the falsehood seems by making the broader meaning that the statement communicates, its gist, seem truer. Mediational evidence was consistent with this theorizing. We argue that prefactual thinking offers people a degree of freedom they can use to excuse lies, and we discuss implications for theories of mental simulation and moral judgment.

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Item Type: Article
Subject Areas: Organisational Behaviour
Date Deposited: 19 May 2022 16:54
Date of first compliant deposit: 30 May 2022
Last Modified: 23 Jul 2024 01:58

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