Smart, friendly, biased liars? Exploring motivated reasoning and ethical decision-making in public relations

Kerstin Thummes, Jens Seiffert-Brockmann

Publication: Scientific journalJournal articlepeer-review


The purpose of this paper is to present research on motivated bias and self-deception in ethical decision-making in public relations. Self-deception might explain how professionals evade mental stress in conflicting situations and manage to be persuasive even when they have to act contrary to their own morals or to public interests. Since self-deception impedes moral reasoning, the research purpose is to gain insights on its origins so that effective counter-measures can be developed. First, the state of research on moral dilemmas in public relations and on self-deception in psychology is outlined. Second, four professionals are interviewed to explore typical conflicts of interest and to develop a realistic scenario that gives rise to a moral dilemma. Third, a small sample of professionals (n=9) is confronted with the developed scenario in a qualitative online questionnaire to analyze their reasoning.

Results indicate that self-deception in response to moral dilemmas exists in public relations practice. Typical conflicts of interest, boundary conditions for motivated bias and counter-measures are identified. Experienced professionals in leading positions seem to have the confidence to reject mandates they perceive as immoral. Counter-measures against self-deception should therefore address young professionals and practitioners with low advisory influence.

While public relations research mostly presumes professionals as rational actors, this study sheds light on irrational practices. In contrast to common practice of expert interviews, an indirect and implicit methodological approach is applied to capture unconscious processes of motivated reasoning.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)412 - 426
JournalJournal of Communication Management
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2019

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