Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Cognitive Dissonance

Telling White Lies Comes With a Price

What you don't know about white lies can harm you.

We've all told the occasional white lie, whether to spare someone's feelings or to avoid troubling them. But now a new study reports that doing so can impact on our own feelings in ways we don't anticipate. Telling white lies can even cost us money.

Waiter, There's a Fly in My Soup

Researches Jennifer Argo and Baba Shiv wanted to examine what happens when we tell white lies to gloss over the minor dissatisfactions we encounter as consumers. Most of us make informed decisions as to when to complain about minor customer service infractions and when to let things slide. As I wrote in The Squeaky Wheel, the vast majority of us do not speak up in such situations because our general complaining psychology has become extremely defeatist. When it comes to our complaints, we feel much more comfortable expressing them to our friends than to the companies and businesses that can actually resolve them.

Specifically, we convince ourselves that complaining will be more trouble than it's worth and that even if we did complain, we would be unlikely to get a satisfying resolution. So we say nothing. Of course by doing so, we set into motion a self-fulfilling prophecy as by not speaking up, our dissatisfactions indeed remain unresolved (read about why leaving our complaints unresolved makes us feel generally frustrated and angry here).

Waiter, There's no Fly in My Soup

But what happens if we not only fail to speak up but actually tell a white lie in such situations? Although it might seem as though no harm could come from telling a waiter our meal is fine when we don't love it, or telling a hairdresser we like our new do when in fact we're not thrilled with it, Argo and Shiv discovered that such is not the case.

For example, they found that 85% of diners in restaurants admitted to telling white lies when their dining experiences were unsatisfactory (i.e., claiming all was well when it wasn't). However the real interesting finding was that diners who told white lies to cover up their dissatisfactions were then likely to leave bigger tips than those who did not. Why would diners who were less satisfied with their meals and who lied to their server about it leave an even bigger tip as a result? The researchers propose that cognitive dissonance was at play.

Waiter, the Fly in My Soup Was Delicious

Cognitive dissonance refers to situations in which our actions do not match our beliefs, creating a state of psychological and emotional discomfort. We tend to resolve cognitive dissonance by making efforts to align our actions with our beliefs by tinkering with one of them (either the action or the belief). Cognitive dissonance tends to operate unconsciously and not in a premeditated manner.

As to the current study, we all have an acceptable range of dishonesty. When our white lies fall outside that range it can trigger cognitive dissonance as we feel uncomfortable about our dishonesty. We might then try to reduce our cognitive dissonance by engaging in behaviors that actually favor the wrongdoer (as by doing so we 'make up' for our dishonesty). As a result, we not only tell the waiter the soup is delicious when there was a (metaphotical) fly in it, we then tip them even more to make up for our lying.

Seeing Through Others' White Lies

Interestingly, 95% of the servers in the study indicated they knew when customers were lying about such things (i.e., saying the food was satisfactory when it wasn't) and 100% of the servers (none of whom were trained as lie detectors or as psychologists) believed such lies translated into bigger tips.

In The Squeaky Wheel I discuss the many negative psychological, relationship and financial consequences we encounter by succumbing to our defeatist complaining psychology. Here is one more price we pay for being ineffective complainers-we leave bigger tips when we fail to speak up about an unsatisfactory dining experience. Learning effective complaining skills can benefit us in many ways (read more about that here) and it would certainly help reduce our cognitive dissonance in situations of consumer dissatisfaction. Or we could hope to develop a fondness for flies in our soup...

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

Reference: Argo, J. & Shiv, B. Are White Lies as Innocuous as We Think? Journal of Consumer Research. April 2012 Vol. 38

More from Guy Winch Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today