Lay theories of effortful honesty: Does the honesty-effort association justify making a dishonest decision?

Julia J. Lee*, Madeline Ong, Bidhan Parmar, Elinor Amit

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Are our moral decisions and actions influenced by our beliefs about how much effort it takes to do the right thing? We hypothesized that the belief that honesty is effortful predicts subsequent dishonest behavior because it facilitates one's ability to justify such actions. In Study 1 (N = 210), we developed an implicit measure of people's beliefs about whether honesty is effortful, and we found that this lay theory predicts dishonesty. In Study 2 (N = 339), we experimentally manipulated individuals' lay theories about honesty and effort and found that an individual's lay theory that honesty is effortful increased subsequent dishonesty. In Study 3, we manipulated (Study 3a; N = 294) and measured (Study 3b; N = 153) lay theories, and then manipulated the strength of situational force that encourages dishonesty, and found that an individual's lay theory influences subsequent dishonesty only in a weak situation, where individuals have more agency to interpret the situation. This research provides novel insights into how our lay theories linking honesty and effort can help us rationalize our dishonesty, independent of whether a particular moral decision requires effort or not.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)659-677
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of Applied Psychology
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2019


  • Behavioral ethics
  • Effort
  • Justifications
  • Morality
  • Situational strength

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