An indecent proposal: the dual functions of indirect speech

Cogn Sci. 2015 Jan;39(1):199-211. doi: 10.1111/cogs.12145. Epub 2014 Jul 31.


People often use indirect speech, for example, when trying to bribe a police officer by asking whether there might be "a way to take care of things without all the paperwork." Recent game theoretic accounts suggest that a speaker uses indirect speech to reduce public accountability for socially risky behaviors. The present studies examine a secondary function of indirect speech use: increasing the perceived moral permissibility of an action. Participants report that indirect speech is associated with reduced accountability for unethical behavior, as well as increased moral permissibility and increased likelihood of unethical behavior. Importantly, moral permissibility was a stronger mediator of the effect of indirect speech on likelihood of action, for judgments of one's own versus others' unethical action. In sum, the motorist who bribes the police officer with winks and nudges may not only avoid public punishment but also maintain the sense that his actions are morally permissible.

Keywords: Behavioral ethics; Evolutionary psychology; Indirect speech; Moral psychology; Self-deception.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Judgment
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Morals*
  • Social Behavior*
  • Speech*
  • Young Adult