Is the Salesperson Lying? That’s Harder to Determine if They Believe in the Lies

New research finds customers distinguish their salesperson’s bias more accurately when the salespeople are asked to provide fact-based information about their own actions
Jeremiah Bentley
Jeremiah Bentley

Salespeople frequently have an interest in the decisions their customers make, which forces customers to attempt to distinguish which of their salesperson’s beliefs are unbiased, and which are fueled by self-interest. This task is especially hard when psychological forces distort salespeople’s beliefs to make some of their bias sincerely held.

In a new study published by The Accounting Review, researchers including Jeremiah Bentley, assistant professor of accounting in the University of Massachusetts Amherst Isenberg School of Management, have now found that customers are better at distinguishing between the unbiased, sincerely biased and insincerely biased parts of their salesperson’s recommendation when they meet face-to-face. Their experiments also found that customers distinguish their salesperson’s bias from their unbiased beliefs more accurately when the salespeople are asked to provide fact-based information about their own actions.

“People with expertise or inside information often have conflicts of interest that can lead them to give others biased advice,” the authors write in the paper. “Across two experiments, we examine whether post-report interactions can help customers distinguish between unbiased and biased advice. In Experiment 1, we find that customers are better able to distinguish between unbiased and biased recommendations when they meet with salespeople face-to-face than when they do not. In Experiment 2, we find that customers are better able to distinguish between unbiased and biased recommendations when the salesperson is asked a factual question that is not conducive to malleable lies.”

Bentley says that salespeople, multi-level marketing (MLM) distributors, business executives and even politicians are better at persuading others if they have first persuaded themselves – if, as the saying goes, they “drink the Kool-Aid.”

“Listeners can usually pick up on outright lies,” he says, “but they have a much harder time when would-be persuaders or deceivers have convinced themselves of the lie. Asking fact-based questions can improve a listener’s ability to identify and not be fooled by a persuader’s self-deception.”

Bentley says his team’s research provides some simple “do’s and don’ts” that people can use when interacting with a salesperson.

“Don’t ask a salesperson what they think or believe,” he says. “So, if you’re car-shopping don’t ask a salesperson what kind of car they think is best. Asking for their honest belief won’t help, because the best salespeople convince themselves that the lie is true – they think that their response is honest. Instead, ask about their own actions – ask the salesperson what car they personally own. And always ask for facts, such as Consumer Reports ratings.”

Bentley says you can always think back to what George Costanza famously said in the classic sitcom “Seinfeld:” “Jerry, just remember, it’s not a lie if you believe it.”

“If you ask fact-based questions, you can avoid being deceived,” Bentley says, “even if the salesperson has bought into the lie themselves.”

Joining Bentley in the study were Robert J. Bloomfield of Cornell University, Shai Davidai of Columbia University and Melissa J. Ferguson of Yale University. The complete paper, “Identifying Insincere and Sincere Bias Through Post-Report Interactions,” is available online from The Accounting Review.

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