On job applications and dating websites, it’s better to reveal than to hide

Scientists have advice to job applicants with an unsavory past: It's better to come clean than plead the fifth.

Scientists have advice to job applicants with an unsavory past: It’s better to come clean than plead the fifth.

(BartekSzewczyk / Getty Images/iStockphoto)

If a potential employer asks about your prior drug use, pleading the fifth may not be your best bet.

A new study finds that most people would prefer to hire and date a person who is forthcoming about his or her unsavory behaviors rather than someone who chooses to withhold information.

“When you are posed a direct question and you say, ‘I don’t want to answer that,’ people view you as untrustworthy,” said Leslie John, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School who lead the study.


“Our results suggest that you need to consider the risk of not answering direct questions in addition to the risks of disclosing embarrassing information,” she added.

To come to this conclusion, John ran a series of seven experiments that show people usually think they are making themselves look more attractive when they choose to withhold information, but in fact, this act leads others to judge them more negatively than their more forthcoming counterparts.

Although John expected to find most people would prefer “revealers” to “hiders,” even she was at times surprised by the results of her study.

For example, in the first experiment, 126 participants were asked to choose who they would rather date based on two potential candidates’ answers to a questionnaire that included “Have you ever neglected to tell a partner about an STD you are currently suffering from?” and “Have you ever had a fantasy about doing something terrible (IE torturing) to somebody?

She found that 64% of people said they would rather date someone who responded “frequently” to those questions while just 36% said they would rather date the person who checked the box “Choose not to answer.”

“That, to me, is crazy,” John said. “The preference for someone who divulges information is so strong that people actually prefer someone that they know has the worst values as an attribute over someone who only in the worst-case scenario is that bad.”


John was so shocked by that finding that she ran the study over several times to make sure she did not get a false positive.

Two follow-up experiments showed that it was the hiders’ act of choosing not to reveal information that was specifically distasteful to people.

In these experiments, participants were asked how interested they would be in dating three different people -- a revealer who answered all the questions on a questionnaire, a hider who answered “choose not to answer” on two of the questions, and an “inadvertent nondiscloser” who appeared to answer all the questions, but because of a purported computer glitch, not all those answers were available.

The researchers found that participants were most interested in the revealer and expressed the least interest in the hider.

Other experiments shed light on how withholding information might effect a person’s ability to get a job. Participants were asked to choose who they would rather hire between two candidates who were asked, “What is the lowest grade you ever received on a final exam in school?” The hider checked choose not to answer, while the revealer indicated a grade of F.

The researchers found that 89% of participants hired the revealer over the hider, even though when asked, they guessed the numerical grade of the hider was higher than that of the revealer.


In another experiment, the researchers divided participants into two groups -- employers and employees. Employees were asked to imagine that they occasionally smoke marijuana, and then asked to indicate how they wold answer the question, “Have you ever done drugs?” As the researchers expected, 70% of employees chose to opt out of that question.

However, participants that had been designated employers were more interested in hiring those who had admitted their drug use than those who withheld that information -- a result the researchers expected as well.

“Taken together, these results suggest that people are prone to withhold information when they would be better off sharing it,” John and her coauthors wrote.

In a conversation with the Los Angeles Times John cautioned that her research did not imply that people should go around telling everyone all the bad things they’ve done. She said her study showed that when you are asked a direct question, and disclosure is expected, it’s best to give an answer, even if that answer feels embarrassing.

“When people are forming an opinion of you and you care about that opinion, you may be prone to withholding information,” she said. “But in fact, you would make a better impression if you came clean and divulged it.”

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