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The Weight of White Lies

When a well-intended falsehood is revealed, how is the teller judged?


A man taking his mother to a surprise party tells her they're going to the mall. A woman fibs that the store was out of her overweight boyfriend's favorite junk food. A tutor assures his student that her spotty resumé looks fine.

Even benevolent forms of deception come in shades of acceptability, and people who learn that they have been misled don't always see it the way deceivers do. A lie that's meant to inflate someone's confidence or discourage a bad habit, for example, often involves making a judgment about what's best for that person. That presumption can backfire.

In recent experiments, participants playing an economic game on a computer received a tip that led them to one of two possible payoffs. Some learned that the sender of the tip had lied to them to secure them a particular option. If the best option had been debatable rather than obvious—such as receiving $10 right away rather than $30 after three months—participants judged that person as less moral for lying and were less satisfied with the outcome, on average, even if it was the one they had previously said they preferred. "People seem to feel they have a right to the truth, and that by taking that away, you diminish their ability to act freely," says study co-author Matthew Lupoli, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, San Diego.

Serving up falsehoods isn't the only way to kindly deceive, though: You might also simply leave out unpleasant facts. Recent studies by University of Chicago researcher Emma Levine and colleagues examined both types of lie in hypothetical patient-doctor talks and other contexts.

People in the role of deceiver tended to view the omission of potentially harmful details (such as a poor prognosis) as comparable to or more acceptable than offering a comforting fiction (that a patient's outlook was favorable). But those in the role of the deceived often considered false-but-supportive statements more tolerable than lies of omission. For deceivers, actively committing a lie feels more intentional and might provoke more guilt than omission, Levine says. But the targets of deception "aren't likely to be sensitive to these differences because they just experience the consequences."

In general, honesty is probably still the best policy. A lie that provides some emotional benefit and has little downside could be the closest second.

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