Are Consumers More Honest in their Native Language?

In the marketplace, there are many opportunities to tell small lies for relatively small rewards (e.g., complaining untruthfully about a product to get money back after it is consumed, not declaring purchases to customs when traveling abroad). In such cases, do multilingual consumers lie more or less when using their native language? Phyliss Jia Gai and Stefano Puntoni, authors of this recent JCR paper (available for free), explain their findings below.

“The majority of consumers around the world speak a second language. They can express their preferences, make choices, and even lie in different languages. For instance, consumers can lie about how satisfied they are with the hotel’s service when traveling abroad; they can lie about their age to get undeserved discounts on international websites; and they could lie about product conditions in travel insurance forms. Dishonesty can result in financial losses for organizations, mislead managers, and most importantly, harm fellow consumers. Does speaking a native or second language alter consumer dishonesty? If so, why? In this work, we demonstrate that speaking a non-native language increases some types of lies, but it decreases others.

Dishonesty is typically thought of a result of calculations based on the benefits and costs of lying. However, research in marketing, economics, and psychology shows that dishonesty is also driven by one’s self-concept, the cluster of identities that are important to a consumer. For example, people who believe they are moral avoid lying, even when there is no punishment at all. Similarly, people who value competence are more dishonest when lying is tied to better performance, because they want to maintain their self-image as a competent person. In this paper, our central argument is that, in non-native language contexts, lies are less diagnostic of who we are, because one’s self-concept is primarily established through social interactions in the native language, not in the non-native language (which is typically acquired later in life).

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Lying for selfish reasons, such as for undeserved gains, is morally blameworthy. It is diagnostic of a dishonest self. Therefore, most consumers tend to avoid selfish lies to keep a clean self-image. However, because consumers do not see their actions in non-native language contexts as self-diagnostic as those in native language contexts, non-native language makes consumers more likely to lie for one’s benefits. We find this effect in various consumption contexts, including faking identity to evade charges, under-reporting automobile mileage for lower premiums, exaggerating game performance for extra reward, and misrepresenting one’s age for undeserved payments. Notably, when lies are so close to the truths that consumers no longer see them as self-diagnostic (and thus a threat to the self), we find that consumers lie more regardless of the language context.

For sure, not all lies are selfish. Consumers frequently construct ‘white lies’ that are intended to protect others, such as lying about their preferences to accommodate others’ needs. In contrast with selfish lying, prosocial lies are diagnostic of compassion, a moral trait central to most people’s self-concept. Because non-native language decreases the self-diagnosticity of lying, we find that consumers are more likely to commit to tell white lies in native languages.

Consumer dishonesty matters to the collective welfare of consumers. Our research delineates the situations in which non-native language increases or decreases dishonesty and highlights the role of one’s sense of self. For interventions targeted at reducing dishonesty, we recommend the joint consideration of consumers’ self-concept and the nature of lies. Speaking a non-native language not only connects consumers with a different culture, but also distance them from who they are.”

Read the full paper:

Journal of Consumer Research, ucab001,


Stacy Wood

Stacy is the Langdon Distinguished University Professor of Marketing at NC State University and a member of the JCR editorial team.

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