A man goes to see his doctor. He says, “Doctor, I want to be healthier.” The doctor says, “No problem. From now on, always mean what you say.”
That may sound like the start of a joke, but it’s actually a crib note version of results from a new study suggesting that sincerity and honesty are keys to good health.
The study’s author is Anita E. Kelly, a psychology professor at the University of Notre Dame who runs a Templeton Foundation-funded research project called The Science of Honesty. She presented findings from the project’s latest study (conducted with co-author Lijuan Wang) at the national convention of the American Psychological Association last week and wrote about them at her Psychology Today blog, “Insight”.
Kelly and her team recruited 72 adults and randomly assigned them to two groups: a Sincerity group and a control group. The control group wasn’t given specific instructions (other than they’d be in a study for the next five weeks, topic unstated), but the Sincerity group was given the following mandate:
“Throughout every day of the next five weeks, you must speak honestly, truthfully, and sincerely — not only about the big things, but also about the small things, such as why you were late. You must always mean what you say in situations where your statements are to be taken seriously, as opposed to when joking or obviously exaggerating. While you certainly can choose not to answer questions, you must always mean what you say.”
During the next five weeks, both groups came to the lab for periodic polygraph tests and standard measures of physical health. By the fifth and final week, Kelly says that the results were “amazing.” The Sincerity group reported significantly less physical health symptoms than the control group – specifically fewer sore throats, headaches, and nausea. They also reported fewer mental health complaints like feeling tense.
The average age of the study participants was 41, and other than the Sincerity group’s mandate to “always mean what you say,” there were no other major distinctions between the groups. The pivotal factor over the five-week period was consistently telling the truth.
Arguably, honesty is not the normal state of affairs for most humans. Research from lying expert Robert Feldman suggests that about 60 percent of us have a hard time getting through a ten-minute conversation without lying at least twice. Kelly estimates that the average person lies about 11 times a day. Perhaps all of that lying causes a continual level of psychosomatic stress that handicaps our immune system.
Why might it have taken five weeks to see results? Possibly because it takes a while for the average fibbing human to retool for honesty. According to Kelly, “Being sincere is a process.” Going from daily lying to a clean slate takes time. It could also be that the health benefits of telling the truth accrue cumulatively.
Whatever the case, the results are intriguing. Kelly adds an anecdotal result at her blog, saying, “Ever since the fall, I too have been following these instructions. Normally I get 8 hours of sleep and have 5-7 colds in a winter. Now at only 3 hours of sleep, I have been sick zero times since the fall.”
If you’re skeptical that sincerity and honesty are health elixirs, the study’s methodology is certainly simple enough (though its execution may be anything but simple) to give a try and see what happens. If you do, let us know how it goes.
You can find David DiSalvo on Twitter @neuronarrative and at his website The Daily Brain. His latest book is Brain Changer: How Harnessing Your Brain’s Power To Adapt Can Change Your Life.
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