Lying in a Foreign Language?

81 Pages Posted: 13 Jul 2017 Last revised: 10 May 2019

See all articles by Despoina Alempaki

Despoina Alempaki

University of Warwick

Gönül Doğan

University of Cologne

Yang Yang

Sun Yat-Sen University (SYSU) - Lingnan (University) College

Date Written: April 1, 2017


Foreign language use is ubiquitous; however, its effect on economic behaviour remains largely unexplored. In two waves of experiments, we investigate whether using a foreign language affects selfish dishonesty in situations with asymmetric information, and test possible mechanisms. Participants perform a real effort task and are matched in pairs. Lying about one’s relative performance increases one’s own payoff at a cost to the other. As our main treatment manipulation, we vary the language of the experiment. In the first wave, in China, native Chinese speakers lie significantly more in their native language than in a foreign language (English). Social norms cannot explain this effect and have the opposite directional change. In Germany, participants lie at similar rates in their native (German) and foreign (English) languages, refuting a universal foreign language effect. In the second wave of experiments in China, we explore the relationship between language proficiency and the foreign language effect. We do not replicate the original foreign language effect. Further, language proficiency does not explain lying decisions in a foreign language. We argue that the foreign language effect is highly context dependent and could arise due to heightened group image concerns in novel situations.

Note: The paper was previously circulated as "When in Rome: Lying in a Foreign Language" (01/04/2017)

Keywords: lying, cognitive load, norm compliance, cultural accommodation, laboratory experiment

JEL Classification: D03, D63, C90, C92

Suggested Citation

Alempaki, Despoina and Doğan, Gönül and Yang, Yang, Lying in a Foreign Language? (April 1, 2017). Available at SSRN: or

Despoina Alempaki (Contact Author)

University of Warwick ( email )

Scarman Road
Coventry, CV4 7AL
United Kingdom

Gönül Doğan

University of Cologne ( email )

Cologne, 50923

Yang Yang

Sun Yat-Sen University (SYSU) - Lingnan (University) College ( email )


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