You Can Handle the Truth: Mispredicting the Consequences of Honest Communication

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Abstract

People highly value the moral principle of honesty, and yet, they frequently avoid being honest with others. In the present research, we explore the actual and predicted consequences of honesty in everyday life. We use field and laboratory experiments that feature 2 types of honesty interventions: (1) instructing individuals to focus on complete honesty across their interactions for a period of time and (2) instructing individuals to engage in specific honest conversations that they frequently avoid in everyday life. In Studies 1a and 1b, we randomly assigned individuals to either be (or imagine being) honest, kind, or conscious of their communication in every conversation with every person in their life for 3 days. We find that people significantly mispredict the consequences of honesty: Focusing on honesty (but not kindness or communication-consciousness) is more pleasurable, socially connecting, and does less relational harm than individuals expect. We extend our investigation by examining the consequences of specific well-controlled honest conversations for both communicators and their relational partners in 2 preregistered laboratory experiments. In Study 2, we examine the predicted and actual consequences of honestly disclosing personal information, and in Study 3 we examine the predicted and actual consequences of honestly sharing negative feedback. Our results suggest that individuals misunderstand the intrapersonal consequences of increased honesty because they misunderstand the interpersonal consequences of honesty: communicators overestimate how negatively others will react to their honesty. Overall, this research contributes to our understanding of affective forecasting processes and uncovers fundamental insights on how communication and moral values shape well-being.

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