30 June 2022

What lies behind lies? New project looks deeper into honesty and dishonesty


With support from VELUX FONDEN, researchers at the Department of Psychology will gain a better understanding of dishonest and honest behaviour in close relationships and across cultures. Moreover, the new project puts focus on the phenomenon of ‘brutal honesty’.

Fingers crossed
Photo: Colourbox

Honest and dishonest behaviour comes in many forms and with various underlying motivations. Honesty and dishonesty also affect many areas of human life and social relations – from hiding an inconvenient truth from your partner to politicians lying in public for personal gain.

But how does dishonesty and honesty manifest itself in different cultural and social settings? And what characterises people who, instead of lying, tend to be ‘brutally honest’ – even if they hurt others’ feelings?

Such questions are at the heart of a new project funded with DKK 6 million by VELUX FONDEN’s core group programme, which supports collaborative research teams working on projects within humanities and related social sciences.

“Phenomena such as honesty and dishonesty are very important for human communication and interaction. Different forms of dishonesty occur almost daily. Sometimes it seems quite tempting not to tell the entire truth, whereas most parents tell their children not to lie. Honesty or dishonesty it is something we all care about,” Professor Ingo Zettler explains.

In collaboration with Associate Professor Séamus Power, Zettler is leading the project ‘(Dis-)Honesty’ at the Department of Psychology. Together with two PhD students and a postdoc, the researchers will investigate honesty and dishonesty from three different angles focusing on:

  1. ‘Brutal honesty’, the blunt form of honesty, which is still an understudied phenomenon
  2. Honesty and dishonesty in close, intimate relationships
  3. Differences in concepts and perceptions of (dis)honesty across cultures – with the purpose of establishing a new theoretical and empirical framework for further studies

The project is ambitious: All subprojects combine qualitative and quantitative methods aiming to involve thousands of survey participants from several countries as well as numerous couples in Denmark for the specific study of honesty in relationships.

Innocent lies and bad lies

Although ‘honesty’ is an ancient human concept and an established research topic in various disciplines, Séamus Power stresses that there is still a lot of knowledge to be harvested:

An important objective of the project is to get a more nuanced view of what truth is.
Séamus Power

“Some aspects of honesty and dishonesty have not been in focus of research before, like brutal honesty, and other aspects we now have better ways to obtain data and analyse them. An important objective of the project is to get a more nuanced view of what truth is,” he says.

“In particular, we are interested in justifications of being honest or dishonest. Are there circumstances under which people say that withholding information is lying? Do some consider certain reasons to be legitimate to lie, and do such conceptualisations vary across cultures? Or can we identify forms of dishonesty we should avoid altogether?”

Ingo Zettler mentions intimate relationships as a good example of how complex such questions can be.

“In intimate relationships, it is interesting to look at different forms of lies, including ‘white’ and ‘prosocial’ lies. Sometimes we want to protect our partner, and it is not always a question about being good or bad.”

The project starts early 2023 and runs until the beginning of 2026.


Ingo Zettler
Professor, Department of Psychology
and Copenhagen Center for Social Data Science
Email: ingo.zettler@psy.ku.dk
Telephone: +45 35 32 48 50

Seamus Anthony Power
Associate Professor, Department of Psychology
Email: seamus.power@psy.ku.dk
Telephone: +45 35 33 25 76


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