Expanding the science of honesty

Honesty Project concludes three years of research

The Honesty Project, a three-year exploration of the truth about honesty led by Wake Forest University, concluded this month.

The result: a better understanding of when and how to be honest and of what fosters honesty in individuals, organizations and societies.

“Honesty is widely regarded as an important virtue,” said Christian B. Miller, project director and A. C. Reid Professor of Philosophy at Wake Forest. “Indeed, we found that out of 60 different characteristics, people ranked it No. 1 in terms of what they liked about another person, respected in another person and wanted to know about another person.”

And yet, when the Honesty Project was launched in 2020, the virtue was neglected in academic research.

“Now, after the work of our team and of the many other scholars we have supported, this is no longer the case,” Miller said. “We can expect hundreds of new articles and presentations to come out of our project, dramatically improving our understanding of this critically important virtue.”

A $4.4 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation funded research across scientific fields – including psychology, philosophy, business, economics and political science – to investigate what determines honesty, how honest people are and the consequences of honesty.

The Honesty Project funded 16 research projects by researchers from 24 universities around the world. So far, members of the project have produced 111 papers (49 of which have been accepted for publication in academic journals), made 149 presentations and authored two books.

To increase public knowledge about honesty, the researchers have also written 21 articles intended for a general audience. And, their work has been covered in dozens of news stories in outlets including The New York Times, the Washington Post, PBS and NPR, in addition to a variety of popular podcasts such as “Hidden Brain.”

Using a mix of field studies, surveys, laboratory and online experiments, researchers expanded the science of honesty and addressed how honesty works in daily life.

Here are a few of the questions the researchers tackled:

  • How does honesty shape well-being?
  • What are the barriers to providing honest feedback?
  • How can someone cultivate honesty?
  • What are the pros and cons of honesty in health communications?
  • How to cancel plans with friends.
  • What can help distinguish truth from misinformation?
  • What happens when liars are considered honest?
  • Are culturally endorsed parental lies justified?
  • Do celebrity and dishonesty go hand in hand?

Taya Cohen, an associate professor of organizational behavior and theory at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business, served as a science of honesty project leader along with three Wake Forest psychology professors: Hultquist Family Professor of Psychology William Fleeson, Professor of Psychology and Wright Faculty Fellow R. Michael Furr, and Harold W. Tribble Professor of Psychology and senior research fellow for the Program for Leadership and Character Eranda Jayawickreme.

“Honesty promotes trust, shows respect and prevents harm,” Miller said. “Especially in today’s world, whatever we can do to better understand and ultimately foster the virtue of honesty seems incredibly worthwhile.”

For the past 13 years, Wake Forest has been a national leader in the study of character and has been awarded more than $15 million for related research.

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