Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

White Lies Affect Your Behavior

Telling white lies sometimes affects how you act later.

Our ethical principles often come into conflict. On the one hand, we believe that honesty is the best policy. On the other hand, we also believe that we should try to be nice to other people as often as possible. Consider, then, the case of a bad meal at a restaurant. Perhaps the restaurant is crowded, and your food arrives late. To top it off, the dish has cooled off. Invariably in those situations you are in a hurry, and so you start eating your meal. After a few minutes the server comes by and asks you how you're doing.

In that situation, you may choose to say honestly that you are disappointed that the food came out cold. In many cases, though, you may opt out of telling the truth and instead tell the server that everything is fine. These little untruths are often called "white lies," because they seem to cause little harm and often help social situations go more smoothly.

Do these white lies have any influence on your later behavior?

This question was explored in a set of studies by Jennifer Argo and Baba Shiv in the April, 2012 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research. These researchers argued that in many cases, white lies have little effect on the teller later. However, in situations in which the policy of being honest is highlighted, liars often do nice things for the person they lied to.

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In one study, students at a university went to a research lab. Participants then received lists of words that could be used to form sentences. For example, a participant might get the words "him before cat they met." These words can be used to form the sentence "They met him before." For some participants, the words included many that were related to the concept of honesty. For other participants, no honesty-related words were used. This procedure is known to be effective at priming people to think about a concept without their awareness.

Next, the research assistant running the study left the room saying that she had run out of experiment packets and needed to make some copies. The research assistant was then gone from the room for 12 minutes, which got the research participants annoyed. Upon returning to the lab, the research assistant asked half of the participants how they were doing. People's general response to this question is, "Fine." In this case, of course, the participant was not fine, and so this response was a white lie.

At the end of the study, participants were given the chance to do one of two additional studies. The experimenter told the participants that one of the piles had a study that she was running for her own research, while a second pile had a different person's research study in it. (In actuality, both piles had the same packets in it.) In that packet, participants were told that as part of their participation in the study, they were entered into a drawing to win $100. They were asked to state how much of that $100 they would be willing to donate to the experimenter to help her for her research in the event that they won the raffle.

Those participants who were not given the chance to tell a white lie (regardless of whether they were primed to think about honesty) selected the experimenter's study about 40 percent of the time, and they were willing to donate about $35 to the experimenter if they won the raffle.
For those participants who were given the chance to lie, the results were quite different depending on whether they were primed to think about honesty. Those who were not primed to think about honesty acted like those people who did not lie. Those people who did think about honesty, though, acted much more favorably toward the experimenter. They selected her study 88 percent of the time, and were willing to donate an average of $53 to her research. That means that these participants were actually willing to give away more money than they would keep for themselves in order to make up for having told a lie.

These findings suggest that white lies aren't simply a form of social grease that we apply to make our social interactions go more smoothly. We really do recognize them as being lies. As a result, we need to be quite careful about how these lies affect our future behavior toward the people we have lied to.

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Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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