In 1946’s wonderful A Night in Casablanca, Groucho Marx’s character “Ronald Kornblow” says to a co-star, “You know, I think you’re the most beautiful woman in the whole world,” to which she eagerly replies, “Do you really?”
He answers, “No, but I don’t mind lying if it’ll get me somewhere.”
The character’s sentiment lightly illustrates a moral and practical dilemma that we face almost every day: Are there times when it’s OK to lie? More importantly, what if we fib for another person’s benefit, not just our own?
Psychologists obviously aim to provide the best possible service to their clients. To do so, it’s sometimes necessary to consider whether it is appropriate to “bend the truth” if it helps clients resolve their problems or if it is absolutely necessary to be completely honest with them—even if that means their issues may remain unresolved.
This conflict is inextricably related to “reframing,” a commonly used paradoxical technique that encourages people by taking a new or alternate approach to solving a given problem. In the process, the underlying meaning or issue attached to a problem is fundamentally changed so that it has positive, instead of negative, connotations.
For example, a player from one of Israel’s top basketball teams complained to me one day about a loss of self-confidence and a continuous decline in his performance. He had a fear of shooting from long distances and concerns over penetrating to the basket through the opponent’s defense. Facing either situation, he would pass the ball. Recognizing this pattern, his opponents began leaving him free but pressing his teammates, preventing them from receiving the pass. A vicious cycle developed as the player became increasingly stressed and unconfident, further contributing to his slump. As a result, he was released from the national team.
I could have easily taken a direct “tough love” approach and been totally frank with him, telling him he’s a good player and that he should just get over his fear and get back to work. In the past, however, this strategy proved inefficient, so this situation required a bit of finesse—I decided to help him reframe. I told him I was “impressed” by his “outstanding ability” to manipulate his environment. I explained that he had managed to create a wonderful situation where nobody watches him, so that he could now freely demonstrate his excellent abilities without any disturbances! I insisted that manipulating the environment was actually necessary precisely because he was such an extraordinary player and that otherwise the opponents would have put extra pressure on him.
At first, the player was surprised by my reasoning, but soon understood the point and began to reconsider his approach. In time, he regained his self-confidence, improved his shooting and penetration performance, and had his best season ever. He was also recalled to the national team.
Another seemingly paradoxical technique incorporating light deceit is to assent to a pessimistic view that you don’t actually agree with in an effort to help others see their folly or overcome their negativity. For example, a colleague of mine who was working with a tennis coach told me that one of his players repeatedly expressed feelings of being “not good enough” or “totally untalented.” Before every match he would tell the coach that he had “no chance at all.” The coach’s efforts to rationally convince the player that he was mistaken by reminding him of his talents were unsuccessful. So, I suggested that the coach “join the stand” and “agree” with his player’s pessimistic statements, then exaggerate them.
The coach began saying things like, “there’s no use in training—you’re only going to fail again” or “don’t even worry about showing up, it’s hopeless.” The player was surprised by this unexpected change in his coach’s attitude, but it rallied him toward improving to prove his coach wrong. He stopped his pessimistic commentary and worked harder toward his goals.
You may probably get the feeling from these examples that the psychologist’s main job is to invent stories to tell clients—in other words, lie to them. You may also wonder whether such paradoxical interventions are unnecessarily manipulative and if they can even cause psychologists to lose credibility with their clients. However, many therapeutic interventions apply some manipulative measures to be effective—and it’s not just psychologists who employ such techniques! The same is seen with leaders such as coaches, bosses, and parents. If it is possible to motivate others to perform better, to overcome their fears and reach their goals, what’s the harm?
The situation comes down to the success of the psychological measure you take—if motivating others is only possible or effective through slightly “bending the truth,” can we in good conscience tell a little white lie?
For me, just like Groucho, the answer is clear.