How do People Attempt To Promote Good Behavior and Deter Bad Behavior?

October 19, 2011

By Cynthia S. Wang, University of Michigan and National University of Singapore

Understanding how people react to honesty and deception can provide some of the answers.  Research on this topic has a variety of implications, including  increasing our understanding of how to encourage ethical behavior.

Research suggests that negative stimuli consistently affect us more than positive ones. However,  our research finds that people do not punish deception (a negative stimulus) more than they reward honesty (a positive stimulus). We analyze this topic using a multi-level lens, from the individual, to the collective, to the societal structural level.

Key Findings

People reward honesty more often and more intensely than they punish deception. Several recent studies seemed to confirm that people will punish more than they will reward. However, when we adjusted the results for a more balanced comparison, we found the opposite pattern: individuals reward honesty more than they punish deception. We theorize that rewards may be more prominent than punishments because honesty stimulates both approach and reward motivations, whereas deception provokes competing motivations to either avoid or punish.

Contextual Boundaries: The Role of Social Mobility. In line with reasoning that the ability to focus on negative phenomena is evolutionarily beneficial, we found that both Americans and East Asians evaluate deceptive actors more negatively than they do honest ones positively. However, patterns of how they respond (i.e., administer rewards and punishments) were culturally dependent and tended toward the positive: Americans rewarded more than they punished, whereas East Asians rewarded and punished in equivalent amounts. Moreover, we find that Americans reward more than punish regardless of the type of relationship with the actor (e.g., friend vs. stranger). In contrast, East Asians punished and rewarded strangers equally, while rewarding those they know more than punishing them. Building off the aforementioned approach/avoidance logic, we find that differences emerged because Americans tend to be socially mobile, and so have more changing relationships, whereas East Asians tend to maintain the same relationships over long periods of time.  As mobile Americans can easily establish positive relationships and exit from negative ones, the default tendency is to reward more than punish. As less mobile East Asians feel obligated to maintain collective order and less inclined to trust strangers, they punish and reward equally.

Key Takeaways

Theoretical contribution. Our research provides the first synthesizing lens integrating the findings on reactions to honesty and deception, showing that people reward honesty more than they punish deception. It offers insight into an array of literatures, including work on ethical decision-making, social monitoring, comparisons between bad and good stimuli, and mobility.

Prescriptive implications. If individuals from different cultures reward and punish in different manners, clashes of expectations might be predictable in intercultural contexts. Understanding the dynamics behind punishing deception and rewarding honesty within different cultures may ultimately be essential in reducing misinterpretations and misconceptions between cultures.

For further information:

Wang, C. S., Galinsky, A. D., & Murnighan, J. K. (2009). Bad drives psychological reactions but good propels behavior: Reactions to honesty and deception. Psychological Science.

Wang, C. S., & Leung, A. K.-y. (2010). The cultural dynamics of rewarding honesty and punishing deception. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Wang, C. S., Leung, A. K.-y., See, Y.-h., M., & Gao, X.-y. (2011). The relationship matters: Cross-cultural reactions to honesty and deception. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47(6), 1295-1299.