We often expect the worst when it comes to being honest with someone, but researchers say people typically can handle the truth even when it’s not flattering.
CHICAGO — A friend asks you, “How does this dress look on me?” You answer, “Wow, that is a great color!” What you want to say is “That dress is all wrong on you,” but you are afraid that your friend can’t handle the truth. She probably can, much better than you think. Do not underestimate the power of honesty, a study suggests.
Honesty is a virtue many people say they value. But the truth is, there are many everyday situations where people tell little lies to avoid what they believe would happen if they were completely honest.
Researchers with the University of Chicago Booth School of Business found that our fear of honesty is unfounded. Most people can handle — and want to hear — the truth.
“We’re often reluctant to have completely honest conversations with others,” says study coauthor Emma Levine, an assistant professor at the university, in a media release. “We think offering critical feedback or opening up about our secrets will be uncomfortable for both us and the people with whom we are talking.”
While most people dread having “to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth,” for the study, researchers wanted to find out what happens when people relate to others in an honest way, which they defined as “speaking in accordance with one’s own beliefs, thoughts and feelings.”
Researchers designed three experiments to find out what happens when people speak honestly. How do the results compare to the expectations? Is honesty honestly dangerous?
Participants in the first experiment were assigned the task of maintaining honesty and kindness in every conversation they had for three 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,” the authors wrote.
The second experiment was conducted in a laboratory environment. Individuals were asked to answer personal and possibly difficult discussion questions with a close relational partner. In the third experiment, participants were asked to give honest negative feedback to a close relational partner.
In each test situation, participants anticipated honesty to be less agreeable and less relationship-building than it proved to be.
Researchers say their results tell us that honesty truly is the best policy. Our fears about telling others what we really think are misguided. Honest conversations are more satisfying for both the speaker and the listener, who is probably going to react a lot less negatively than the speaker expected.
“Taken together, these findings suggest that individuals’ avoidance of honesty may be a mistake,” Levine says. “By avoiding honesty, individuals miss out on opportunities that they appreciate in the long-run, and that they would want to repeat.”
Findings were published in the September 2018 edition of the Journal of Experiment Psychology: General.