Selfless Lies: Myth or Reality?

Can selfless lies be selfish?

Posted Dec 06, 2013

As a professor, I routinely discuss deceptive communication in my courses. One of the first challenges that I have is to combat the negative stigmas associated with “lying.” Such a stigma results in regular interactions where people claim, “I never lie.” Such a bold denial, though, is inconsistent with studies of human behavior.

Consider a commonly adopted definition of deception which states that deception entails “a message knowingly transmitted by a sender to foster a false belief or conclusion by the receiver’’ (Buller & Burgoon, 1998, p. 381).” This definition encompasses both overt verbal deception as well as withholding information.

Positioning everyday experiences with views of appropriate behavior creates quite a dichotomy: we are quick to condemn deception, yet regularly communicate deception. Consider the studies of DePaulo and Kashy who documented that individuals lied to their non-married romantic partners in roughly one out of every three interactions. My own work on deceptive affection documents that communicators expressed affection that they did not genuinely feel about three times a week, and withheld affection when feeling affection about five times a week (Carton & Horan, 2013; Horan & Booth-Butterfield, 2013). Although these are a few isolated examples, they serve to illustrate the routine and regular nature of deception in close relationships.

One way that people may rationalize their deceptive communication to romantic partners is by claiming that the deception was done to benefit their romantic partner. Such benefits could include making their partner feel better, avoiding offending their partner, or avoiding conflict. Motives like these would fall under “altruism” or “selfless deception.” This brings up a question, though, as to whether a truly selfless lie exists? (Picture Phoebe on Friends as she struggled with the idea of a purely selfless good deed).

Kaplar and Gordon (2004) tackled this question in their study of romantic partner deception. In their investigation, individuals described lies that they had told their former romantic partners and rated the lies as altruistic or “egoist” (e.g., how much the lie benefitted the source of the message). The authors found that individuals reported their lies to be largely altruistic. Yet, when the research team coded their lie descriptions, the researchers identified the presence of “egoist” motives. Essentially, then, we may rationalize our romantic partner deception as “selfless” but, in reality, there are some selfish motives present.

As one example, imagine your romantic partner asks your opinion about his/her Mother. In reality, you do not get along with, or like, your partner’s Mother. If you were to say this, you would hurt your partner’s feelings and likely have a conflict conversation. To avoid both the conflict and potential partner offense, you lie about your true feelings. Here, you would think you’re telling a “selfless” lie. Though altruistic motives may be present, it is important to recognize that some selfish motives are also present. Consider that you avoid honest communication because you feel it would hurt your partner—and hurting your partner would make you feel bad (e.g., you hurt someone you care about). Equally, you avoid honest communication as you feel it would cause conflict—and you do not like arguing with your romantic partner. Thus, you also benefit from the deception that you express.

Such an example, coupled with Kaplar and Gordon’s findings, further reinforce Phoebe’s sad realization that there is no such thing as a purely selfless “good deed”…or, in this case, lie.

Follow me on Twitter @therealdrsean for relationship commentary/links, complaints about mass transit, and support for WVU Athletics. Continue to follow this blog for future entries about deception, online dating, using affection to lie, workplace romance, and other issues that make obtaining and retaining a mate oh so interesting.   

Buller, D. B., & Burgoon, J. K. (1998). Emotional expression in the deception process. In P. A. Andersen & L. K. Guerrero (Eds.), Handbook of communication and emotion: Research,theory, applications, and contexts (pp. 381–398). San Diego, CA: Academic.

Carton, S. T., & Horan, S. M. (2013). A diary examination of romantic and sexual partners withholding affectionate messages. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. doi: 10.1177/0265407513490587

DePaulo, B. M., Kashy, D. A., Kirkendol, S. E., Wyer, M. M., & Epstein, J. A. (1996). Lying in everyday life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 63–79

Horan, S. M., & Booth-Butterfield, M. (2013). Understanding the routine expression of deceptive affection in romantic relationships. Communication Quarterly, 61, 195-216. doi: 10.1080/01463373.2012.751435

Kaplar, M. E., & Gordon, A. K. (2004). The enigma of altruistic lying: Perspective differences in what motivates and justifies lie telling romantic relationships. Personal Relationships, 11, 489.507.

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