Research Article: The effect of air pollution on convenience-based or other-oriented lies

Date Published: April 29, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Song Wu, Tingbin Wang, Valerio Capraro.


Besides endangering human health, air pollution has profound effects on individuals’ cognition, emotions, and behavior. Previous studies have found that air pollution could increase self-oriented lies. We summarized two explanations for this phenomenon: (1) air pollution makes people less likely to regard lies as unethical, and (2) air pollution makes people more likely to approach materials rewards. The present study mainly measured three kinds of lies—self-convenience, other-convenience, and other-material lies—to investigate these two explanations. Participants were asked to imagine living in either a polluted or a clean situation in two online studies and one laboratory study. The results showed that air pollution did not influence self-convenience lies (Studies 1 and 2), and clean air increased both other-convenience and other-material lies (Studies 2 and 3). According to these results, both explanations are supported. The theoretical implications of the present study are discussed.

Partial Text

Air pollution is a serious global problem. Besides the health and environmental concerns caused by air pollution, psychologists are also interested in how air pollution can influence individuals’ social cognitions and behaviors. Air pollution has been shown to promote unethical behaviors [1–4], including as lying [5]. Specifically, Lu, Lee (5) found that individuals were more likely to lie in order to receive a monetary reward when imagining living in a scenario with high level of air pollution than they would in a clean-air scenario. The present study aimed to extend these earlier studies by examining whether air pollution could increase specifically convenience-based and other-oriented lies.

In Study 1, participants’ experiences of either clean or polluted air were manipulated to examine whether air pollution could increase the use of self-convenience lies.

Study 2 aimed to replicate and extend the results of Study 1 by examining both self- and other-convenience lies. Moreover, we included a questionnaire about lying behavior in Study 2 to ensure that our manipulation was valid. This questionnaire was used in a previous study [5]; thus our results could be compared with previous ones.

Study 3 aimed to extend Study 2 by examining whether clean air increases other-material lies. In Study 3, participants were asked to determine the next participant’s bonus by rolling a dice, and they had the opportunity to misreport the dice result to help the next participant to get more money. In order to increase the internal validity, a laboratory study was conducted.

All study hypotheses were supported by the results that air pollution did not affect self-convenience lies and clean air increased other-oriented lies (both convenience and material). Although these results seemed to be inconsistent with previous results showing that air pollution increased lying behaviors [5], they actually support the same explanation of the underlying mechanisms. As mentioned before, air pollution can influence lying behaviors through two mechanisms—decreasing the effect of moral rules and increasing the desire for resources. Thus, it is reasonable to speculate that air pollution leads individuals to lie in order to gain more material rewards for themselves. However, if the lying outcome is changed into convenience rather than material rewards, air pollution should have a smaller impact, or even no impact, on self-convenience lies because convenience is less attractive and effective than materials for coping with the anxiety caused by air pollution [12, 19]. The non-significant effect of air pollution on self-convenience lies in Studies 1 and 2 supports this speculation and outcome route. Moreover, other explanations, such as culture differences, can be excluded, because the Study 2 found that polluted air increased self-material lies (the SINS) which was exact the same result as in a previous study [5].




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