The Surprising Costs of Silence: Asymmetric Preferences for Prosocial Lies of Commission and Omission

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Abstract

Across 7 experiments (N = 3883), we demonstrate that communicators and targets make egocentric moral judgments of deception. Specifically, communicators focus more on the costs of deception to them—for example, the guilt they feel when they break a moral rule—whereas targets focus more on whether deception helps or harms them. As a result, communicators and targets make asymmetric judgments of prosocial lies of commission and omission: Communicators often believe that omitting information is more ethical than telling a prosocial lie, whereas targets often believe the opposite. We document these effects within the context of health care discussions, employee layoffs, and economic games, among both clinical populations (i.e., oncologists and cancer patients) and lay people. We identify moderators and downstream consequences of this asymmetry. We conclude by discussing psychological and practical implications for medicine, management, behavioral ethics, and human communication.

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