Sep. 17, 2012 at 7:24 AM ET
We're happy when we extract a discount, refund or other concession from a store. We're even happier when we lie to get it.
University of Sydney professors Christina Anthony and Elizabeth Cowley found that consumers who tell lies over the course of a customer-service encounter — for instance, fibbing to obtain a refund they otherwise would be ineligible for — experience higher satisfaction if they get what they want than people who obtain a favorable outcome by telling the truth.
The reason a successful fib is so satisfying isn't because most consumers enjoy pulling the wool over merchants' eyes. The study's authors concluded the main reason for this disconnect is that lying takes more work.
"The liar must craft and communicate a plausible message while actively concealing the truth. Both of these activities are a drain on mental resources," they wrote. If a high-stakes outcome like the prospect of the financial gain is riding on the fib's success, the liar is under even more pressure to get the deception pitch-perfect.
"The liar must concurrently manage the consistency of the information communicated while appearing 'credible' to the listener who will ultimately determine the fate of their outcome," they wrote. These mental gymnastics distract the liar from listening and picking up subtle cues that hint at whether or not they will succeed or fail.
A shopper who tells the truth about their situation picks up on nuances like the customer service representative's facial expressions, body language and tone of voice. They either get their hopes up or prepare to be disappointed.
"When the consumer lies and gets away with it, they are relieved and they are maybe a bit surprised," said George Loewenstein, professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University.
On the other hand, consumers who lie and don't get what they want are caught off-guard, which increases their dissatisfaction. This presents a conundrum for retailers, implying that they would be better off letting instances of suspected deception slide.
"The silver lining for the retailers is that if they are lied to, maybe the consumer is getting away with something they shouldn’t but at least they get the benefit of goodwill from the consumer," Loewenstein said.
For instance, stores might assume that a no-questions-asked return policy is a good strategy because it doesn't make consumers feel forced to lie, Loewenstein said. "On the other hand, maybe they lose a little bit of potential goodwill from the consumers who, if they didnt have such a liberal policy, would have lied and then felt great."
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