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Telling "Little White Lies"

Does compassion play a role in the lies we often tell others?

A degree of lying—you know, white lies—seems to be inherent in all languages and all forms of communication. Matthew Lesko

For all that we value honesty, people still lie for a variety of different reasons—and much more frequently than you might think. According to one 1996 study using diary-based research, participants admitted to lying on an average of once or twice a day. That same study showed that lying can usually be classified as either self-centred (lying for one's personal benefit) or other-centred (lying for someone else's benefit).

This kind of other-centred lying, also known as prosocial lying, typically occurs as a way of avoiding unpleasant situations or to spare the feelings of whoever is hearing the lie. These "little white lies" are often regarded as being relatively innocuous and a necessary part of many social interactions.

But is this kind of prosocial lying really harmless? And what motivates us to be dishonest with people? A new research study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology—General explores these questions in detail. Matthew Lupoli of the University of California-San Diego's Rady School of Management and a team of fellow researchers conducted three studies that provide an intriguing look at the role that compassion often plays in prosocial lying and what it says about human social behaviour.

The first study was conducted using a sample of over 400 university students who were asked to provide private ratings of an essay written by an individual from another university with whom they had been paired (but who was really a confederate of the experimenters). The supposed purpose of the essay was for the writer to show why he or she should be admitted to a graduate program. The participants were asked to rate the essay in terms of writing quality as well as whether the essay should be included as an example of good "off the cuff" writing (not prepared in advance). They were also provided with the writer's initials, "C.G" and an introductory paragraph and then told to rate the essay according to set scoring criteria in terms of overall quality. The essay itself had already been deliberately written to be low-quality and had been verified as such by other raters.

After giving their initial private evaluation of the essay, each participant was subjected to an experimental manipulation intended to either make them feel compassion for the writer or a neutral condition. This involved having participants read a message intended to describe something that had recently occurred in the writer's life. Half the participants read a message describing the recent death of a cousin with whom the writer had been particularly close. The message was written with the same grammatical and spelling quality as the original essay but still conveyed the emotional distress "C.G." was feeling. The neutral condition just described a recent shopping trip.

Participants were then asked to provide direct feedback to the writer about their essay. To ensure they were as honest as possible, participants were also provided the following instructions: "Your feedback is important. Each writer in this project must decide whether they would like to rewrite their essay before submitting it into a contest in which they can win a small prize that we will hold at the end of the semester. So, the information that you provide will help the writer improve his or her essay." They were also asked to rate the essay's overall quality, make recommendations about necessary changes, and also to rate "C.G.'s" likely success as a graduate student.

Results showed that participants who reported feeling compassion for "C.G" due to reading the story about his/her recent loss were much more likely to pad their estimates of the essay quality than participants in the neutral condition. Also, participants were much more likely to be more honest in their evaluation when the ratings were private than when they were shared with the writer. When asked to rate C.G. on other qualities, participants in the compassion condition were much more likely than those in the neutral condition to see him/her as being more agreeable, warm, likable, and trustworthy. They also rated C.G. as being more likely to be female than male.

In looking at these results, the researchers established that prosocial lying was most likely to occur due to the fear of causing emotional harm with negative feedback. Even when other factors such as the emotional state of the rater were taken into account, the link between compassion and lying seemed particularly strong.

As a further test of the compassion-prosocial lying link, Lupoli and his colleagues conducted two additional studies. The first of these studies involved looking at trait compassion, i.e., were people who were more compassionate more likely to lie than less compassionate people? Using a sample recruited using Amazon's Mechanical Turk platform, the prosocial lying task was repeated only this time for rating essays by other Mechanical Turk workers though the procedure was changed to reduce possible experimenter effects.

Participants were also tested on two measures of empathy and trait compassion and were also asked to rate how important they felt it was to prevent their fellow worker from being harmed by negative feedback. As expected, results showed that people high in trait compassion were more likely to inflate their ratings. In particular, people high in compassion were also more likely to report concern over possible harm that might occur due to their feedback and were more likely to lie as a result.

As for the final study, the researchers changed the research design to compare prosocial lying to selfish lying (lying for personal gain rather than for the benefit of others). A sample of nearly 500 university undergraduates completed a structured personality inventory before being assigned to one of two groups. The first group viewed a slideshow and film on child malnutrition while the second group viewed a neutral film.

All participants then completed a cognitive task requiring them to press one of two keys indicating whether there were more dots on the right side of the screen or the left. For the selfish lying condition, participants were told they would be paid more money if they indicated there were more dots on the right side of the screen "because most people can easily identify the number of dots on the left side.” For the prosocial lying condition, participants received the same information but were instead told that the money would be donated to a charity for malaria victims. They were also provided information on the charity including the work they did to combat malaria.

As expected, participants in the compassion condition who viewed the child malnutrition film and slideshow were significantly more likely to lie about their responses to benefit charity though it made no difference for selfish lying. Even when personality traits and emotional state were taken into consideration, the link between compassion and prosocial lying seemed as strong as ever.

So, what can we make of this research? While we are trained to value honesty and to treat lying as dishonourable, we still seem inclined to resort to lying as long as it's in a good cause. As Lupoli and his fellow researchers point out, people who feel compassion for others seem remarkably prone towards lying, whether to avoid hurting other people's feelings or to promote the welfare of others.

Though these three studies highlight how common it is to engage in prosocial lying, it also raises questions about how far we are really likely to go with this kind of deception. Are we more likely to lie to friends or strangers? For that matter, what if our lying is potentially more damaging than the truth in the long run (as it often is)?

While more studies looking at prosocial lying are needed, it seems clear that compassion plays a much greater role in everyday social lying than you might think. Whether or not honesty is really the best policy, the need for "little white lies" to avoid hurting others is something that most of us simply take for granted. That caring for other people can often mean lying to them just seems like another of life's great ironies.


Lupoli, M. J., Jampol, L., & Oveis, C. (2017). Lying because we care: Compassion increases prosocial lying. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 146(7), 1026-1042.

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