A study published in Frontiers in Psychology has identified three masculine physical traits that are associated with the likelihood of lying or telling the truth in strategic communication. In a sender-receiver game in the lab, men with a higher facial width-to-height ratio engaged in more deception, while those with a higher ratio between the lengths of the index and ring fingers engaged in more truth-telling.
Economic exchanges, policy making, and business operations all depend on honest communication between various people. While there are certainly times when it is advantageous to deceive others, studies have revealed that many people seem averse to telling lies even when telling the truth comes at a personal cost.
A research team sought to uncover biological markers that might explain individual differences in truth-telling during strategic communication. The researchers opted to focus on three markers of masculinity, since men tend to occupy a larger share of the roles in environments where strategic communication is common, such as firms and financial agencies. There has also been evidence that sex hormones play a role in moral decision-making.
“Trust in others is essential for economic development and for day-to-day interactions. Lies erode that trust. The experimental literature has shown that we lie a lot less than what standard economic theory predicts, but also that there is a great degree of individual heterogeneity; some people lie much more than others,” said study author Santiago Sanchez-Pages, a reader in economics at King’s College London.
“My co-authors and I wondered whether some physiological traits could explain this heterogeneity. We focused on masculinity because males are a majority in many advisor-advisee interactions (e.g., financial advising, businesses, monetary policy.)”
A total of 168 undergraduate students in Madrid, Spain were recruited to the lab for an experiment. First, participants took part in a sender-receiver game with one other participant. In this game, the sender is given information that will affect the payoffs received by both players and must send a signal to the other player portraying this information. Importantly, the best outcome for the sender is the worst outcome for the receiver (and vice versa), so there is an incentive for the sender to deceive the other player by lying about the information. Misrepresenting the information may sway the receiver into choosing an action that will benefit the sender.
After playing the game, participants were photographed and their data was inputted into morphometric software. Measurements were taken for three masculine physical traits. Second-to-fourth digit ratio (2D:4D) was measured by calculating the ratio between the lengths of the index and ring fingers. Facial morphometric masculinity (fMM) was assessed by measuring the degree of difference between a subject’s face and a female reference face. Facial width-to-height ratio (fWHR) was measured by the ratio between the height and width of a subject’s face.
An analysis of the data revealed that these traits were indeed associated with participants’ lying behavior in the game. First, those with a higher fWHR and those with greater exposure to prenatal testosterone (as indicated by the 2D:4D measurement) were less likely to lie to their opponents. However, a closer look at the way the game is played revealed further insight.
As the researchers explain, truth-telling during the sender-receiver game does not necessarily mean a sender has good intentions. If a sender expects the receiver to distrust him, then he suspects that if he tells the truth about the information he has, the receiver will act against this information. Since the best outcome for the sender occurs when the receiver acts against his own best interests, truth-telling in this scenario maximizes the payoff for the sender. Keeping this in mind, the researchers found that those with higher fWHR were more likely to deceive their opponent this way — by telling the truth when expecting their message to be distrusted.
It was additionally found that greater exposure to testosterone in utero was positively associated with telling the truth when expecting to be believed by the opponent, what the researchers call “strong truth-telling.”
The findings indicate “that physical traits associated with masculinity have a significant association with lying and deception. We find that our proxy for in utero testosterone exposure (2D:4D) is associated with more truth-telling, whereas our proxy for dominant behavior (facial width-to-height ratio) is associated with more deception.”
The researchers note, however, that it is unclear whether this is evidence of a biological effect of masculine traits or whether the effect is driven by the way people with these masculine traits are perceived by others.
“We only use males in our study,” Sanchez-Pages noted. “The associations we uncover may not hold for females. One question our research leaves open is that we cannot distinguish whether the association between facial masculinity and deception we observe is due to biology or to the experiences males with masculine faces have in their interactions with others.”
For the last decade or so, economists, psychologists and biologists have been interested in the physiological underpinnings of economic behavior,” Sanchez-Pages added. “A lot of advances have been made but there is still a lot more to do, in terms of questions but also in terms of methods.”
The study, “Masculinity and Lying“, was authored by Marc Vorsatz, Santiago Sanchez-Pages, and Enrique Turiegano.