The Deception Spiral: Corporate Obfuscation Leads to Perceptions of Immorality and Cheating Behavior

David M. Markowitz*, Maryam Kouchaki, Jeffrey T. Hancock, Francesca Gino

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


In four studies, we evaluated how corporate misconduct relates to language patterns, perceptions of immorality, and unethical behavior. First, we analyzed nearly 190 codes of conduct from S&P 500 manufacturing companies and observed that corporations with ethics infractions had more linguistically obfuscated codes than corporations without ethics infractions. Next, we tested perceptions of a company based on values statements modified by obfuscation (Study 2). Participants perceived low-obfuscation companies as more moral, warmer, and more trustworthy than high-obfuscation companies. Finally, behavioral experiments (Studies 3a and 3b) revealed that group members cheat more after reading a high-obfuscation values statement than a low-obfuscation values statement. The results provide evidence of a potentially troublesome cycle: corporate unethicality has linguistic traces, can affect how people appraise a company, and can change ethical behavior.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)277-296
Number of pages20
JournalJournal of Language and Social Psychology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 2021


  • corporate unethicality
  • deception
  • deception spiral
  • obfuscation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Education
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Anthropology
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Linguistics and Language


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