A declaration of honesty increases truthfulness in statements


Research shows that if you have a subject sign an declaration of honesty prior to an event such as a test, job application or witness statement, the odds increase significantly that the subject will be considerably more honest than if he does not sign a declaration of honesty or he signs one at the end of the event (Lisa Shu et al. 2012).

The research showed that if the subject signs a declaration of honesty after the event, the subject still lied 63% of the time.  If the subject did not sign anything at all, he lied 79% of the time.  If he signed a declaration of honesty prior to the the event, however, the dishonesty occurred at a much lower 37%.

Increasing the odds for truthfulness is important in so many areas- human resources, law enforcement interviews, buying a car, etc. Anything that improves our odds of getting honesty out of others, is worthy of consideration.

The psychology behind this phenomenon is known as Cognitive Consistency Theory.  This theory states the need to be consistent is a powerful drive in human beings.  In order to keep our belief system in alignment (psychologists refer to this state as “equilibrium”), we must act consistently.  The theory purports that the actions we take strongly influence our belief system, and not always the other way around.  Therefore, signing a declaration of honesty sets in motion the need to be honest.  This need to be consistent can be used to your advantage.  It is also a powerful driving force behind some negative situations such as confirmation bias, which is the tendency to seek out and emphasize information that supports an established belief while under valuing or outright ignoring facts and information that are counter to that previously established belief.

A similar and more well known psychological phenomenon, Cognitive Dissonance Theory, holds that when our actions do not match our belief system, we experience internal conflict.  This conflict must be resolved to reestablish equilibrium.  Edward Snowden’s NSA situation is likely a result of a strong sense of internal conflict (dissonance) brought on by the fact that he was acting (in his role for the NSA) in a way that did not align with his beliefs.  In order to bring himself back to balance, he had to act just as strongly in the opposite direction.  I am not advocating Snowden’s actions.  His actions appear to be strong example of dissonance.  (Of course, there could be another reason for Snowden’s decisions. I’m simply theorizing without all of the facts of his case here for illustrative purposes.)

If your subject is showing signs of discomfort beyond those expected for the situation (and what is known for that person, if any), then he might be experiencing dissonance.  His discomfort is possibly being brought on by the need to act (tell you a lie) in a way that is in conflict with what he believes (knows).  Your applicant may be telling you he is a punctual, hard working and detail-oriented person while knowing he has had problems with his work ethic in the past.

An important point to keep in mind, however, is the risk vs. reward decision process occurring with your subject.  If you are interviewing a murder suspect, who is looking at life in prison or the death penalty, it is considerably less likely to get the confession out of him simply because he signed a declaration of honesty prior to making his statement.  However, it won’t hurt.  The strategy can be a first step in moving toward a successful interview.  A subject’s motivation is an important factor and must considered, if known.  As is well established, our moral standing erodes when faced with strong temptation.  For example, if you find a wallet with $1 in it, returning it to the owner is not a big decision.  Turning in a lost bag with several $100 bills in it to the police is a much more difficult choice to make.

If you do not have the opportunity to have a subject sign a declaration of honesty, or anti-fraud statement, you can swear him in or simply reiterate to him the importance of honesty in the upcoming procedure and get him to verbally agree on the importance of being truthful.  This will help put him on the right path.  During the interview, thank him repeatedly for his honesty.

Scout's honor

Scout’s honor

Signing the declaration of honesty is a great tactic to encourage the truth. Add it to your hiring process, interviewing strategy or wherever you can best use it to increase the odds in your favor. Good luck!

Follow me on Twitter! @RyanMannWVMMA


4 thoughts on “A declaration of honesty increases truthfulness in statements

  1. Andrea

    Do people who are relatively honest get insulted by being asked to sign a declaration of honesty? In reading the article, and thinking how I would respond to it, I think I’d get a feeling that they’re assuming I’m a liar to start with, and are attempting to rein in my dishonesty, which would certainly annoy me and lower my opinion of them. I’m a bit perplexed by the statistics, anyway. Do people really lie THAT much? Sure, criminals being accused of crimes are likely to be lying, but in just regular interview settings? Average Joe is lying 79% of the time, and signing a paper will bring it down to “only” 37%?

    1. Ryan Mann, CFE Post author

      Thank you for commenting. I would suspect that most honest people would not get offended by signing a declaration of honesty, however individual responses may of course vary.
      With regard to the cited study, the researchers used two different measures of cheating: self-reported earnings (income) on a math puzzles task wherein participants could cheat for financial gain, and travel expenses to the laboratory (deductions) claimed on a tax return form on research earnings. On the one-page form where participants reported their income and deductions, they varied whether participant signature was required at the top of the form or at the end. They also included a control condition wherein no signature was required on the form. They measured the extent to which participants overstated their income from the math puzzles task and the amount of deductions they claimed. All materials were coded with unique identifiers that were imperceptible to participants, yet allowed them to track each participant’s true performance on the math puzzles against the performance underlying their income reported on the tax forms. The percentage of participants who cheated by over claiming income for math puzzles they purportedly solved differed significantly across conditions: fewer cheated in the-at-the-top condition (37%) than in the signature-at the- bottom and no-signature conditions (79 and 64%), with no differences between the latter two conditions.

      And yes, people do lie that much. Many lies are lies in which the person feel are inconsequential or harmless, but they are lies nonetheless.

      1. Andrea

        Thanks, Ryan! I had got the idea that other people lie a lot more than they admit, but not that it was THAT bad. I’ve seen people lie about things that don’t even matter, and can’t imagine what the point is. I wonder if people who lie that much just assume everyone else does, too? I feel horrible if I lie *in a video game*; I can’t imagine lying on a resume or job interview. Of course, that means I would be completely useless as a spy! 🙂

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