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When Truth Is Overrated: The Advantages of Dishonesty

Lying and deception aren’t the answer, except when they are.

Key points

  • If you want other people to trust you, whatever lies you tell should be motivated by the benign intention to help rather than harm them.
  • Speaking tactically and tactfully to another is both polite and strategically beneficial in relationships.
  • It can be advisable to lie to someone when telling them a painful truth won’t serve them or contribute to their growth.
Michiel Jelijs from Groningen, The Netherlands/Wikimedia Commons
Pinocchio
Source: Michiel Jelijs from Groningen, The Netherlands/Wikimedia Commons

This post is hardly meant to encourage falsehoods. Usually, deceiving or gaslighting another is abusive, unethical, and—at times—plainly illegal.

Nonetheless, this piece is about having you consider whether, without painstaking deliberation, it’s kind to share something that might be too unsettling, scary, or hurtful for a particular person to handle. This is where tact, diplomacy, and, most of all, compassion ought to dictate your behavior.

Too many relationships have been undermined or destroyed by unwittingly sharing something that another didn’t really need to know. And that irreparable damage could be to the other person, your relationship with them, or to yourself.

However, by way of qualification, let me first briefly review some of the many minuses of deceitful communication.

The downsides of lying

  • Lying as it pertains to focusing exclusively on your self-interests, unconcerned with how others might be affected by such prevarication, ultimately compromises or kills relationships once it’s found out.
  • Lying puts pressure on you to recall exactly what you fabricated earlier. Frequently, you’ll forget exactly what you said and blurt out something contradictory, sacrificing the other person’s trust in you.
  • Being truthful is typically less stressful than lying. Studies have actually shown that lying is associated with getting more headaches and, in general, different diseases.
  • Lying to avoid punishment can lead to consequences far harsher than telling the truth if it’s discovered as having been done solely to avoid being held accountable for errant behavior.
  • Similarly, lying to protect someone else whose behavior genuinely warrants punishment can be regarded as not really a pro-social act but putting a higher value on another’s benefit than what would advantage society.
  • Exaggerating or falsifying accomplishments to win others’ respect or adulation might immediately receive approval. But eventually, such narcissistic fraudulence will antagonize others once they realize you’re alleging superiority over them.
  • Lying can become habitual—and addictive. Longer-term, such perpetual lying will alienate you from others and nullify your integrity.

In short, if you want other people to trust you, whatever lies you tell need to be motivated by the benign intention to help rather than harm them. And, too, they ought to be perceivable as ethically neutral.

The much-less-discussed upsides of lying

The following points all share the common (and too easily forgotten) humanity of treating others kindly, politely, altruistically, and with spiritual generosity.

As in the “do unto others...” mindset, it depicts a humanistic approach to dealing with matters that can be understood as morally ambiguous.

Doubtless, you’re familiar with the popular maxim: “It’s the thought that counts.” And in evaluating the relative virtue of behavior, what’s critical to assess is the sender’s intention. Is it benevolent? Or is it selfish and self-centered, maybe even bordering on sociopathic? If it’s the former, we might call it “lying light." (See this post on different levels of “white lies” that highlight their distinctions.)

Let’s now consider a few examples of what might be categorized as “virtuous lying”—as guideposts to when telling falsehoods can be seen as laudable and ethically justified:

  • When you believe that outright lying or withholding the truth from someone will safeguard them from experiencing a pain that won’t really serve them or contribute to their growth, that’s when a heartfelt evasiveness is advisable. One example from my own clinical work would be helping a client cope with her grief about her husband’s totally unexpected fatal heart attack. In a private session, he’d shared with me his history of clandestine affairs during his marriage. Although I could hardly prevent this knowledge from entering my consciousness, I could see no good reason to disclose his past infidelities to her. (That is, at times, it’s true that what a person doesn’t know can’t hurt them.)

  • When because of time pressures, the other person couldn’t possibly change something that might be harmful to them or that disadvantageously increases their self-consciousness. Say your spouse, already extremely late for their high school reunion, nervously asks in the car how they look, and you realize they’ve dressed quite inappropriately for the occasion. It’s probably much better—and gracious!—to say their appearance is just fine than to tell them the truth when it wouldn’t be tenable to drive 30 miles home in traffic for them to change.

  • The well-known designation “brutal honesty” is almost always reprehensible honesty because it’s being candid to a fault—almost like sadistically rubbing salt into another’s wound. Particularly if a person has a flaw or impediment they can’t do anything about (e.g., their conspicuous facial mole, embarrassing tic, or dyslexia), why bring it to their attention?

So unless you can help that individual avoid a situation that could highlight a flaw or serious limitation, it’s better not to divulge it. To remind them of something they’re aware of—and uncomfortable or ashamed by—is simply mean. And if for whatever reason, they’ve explicitly requested your feedback on what’s unflattering to them, you still need to think about responding to them in the most tactful, least hurtful way possible. If even that’s not possible, go ahead and “white-lie” to them.

  • You might want to offer another what you deem "constructive criticism." But here again, if the person’s ego isn’t strong enough to receive it without feeling the worrisome sting of rejection or failure, it’s advisable to withhold your unfavorable evaluation—or put it in terms less likely to demoralize them and further degrade their performance.

So if your new employee has been unusually slow in learning the rudiments of their position, rather than criticizing them head-on, can you tell them that you know it takes time to master what’s unprecedented in their work history? And that you’ll suspend judgment until they’ve had more time to adapt to these fresh challenges? To best motivate them to apply themselves more effectively to the tasks at hand, another expression applicable here is: “You’ll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”

Lying to yourself

The one thing I haven’t yet addressed is self-dishonesty. But I’ll close by adding that the selective criteria for, well, “positively” deceiving others doesn’t hold for self-deception. For if you want to live a fulfilling life and cultivate rich, satisfying relationships, you need to reveal your authentic self—warts and all. As Martha Beck opined: “If you want your life to work, tell yourself the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”

When, on the contrary, you’re dishonest with yourself, you’ll end up feeling like a fraud, like you’ve masked the real you, and that whatever success you’ve had is spurious. And that’s not going to make you feel very good about yourself.

In the past, you may have “made yourself over” to preclude your hypercritical parents’ disapproval and secure your relationship and minimize your vulnerability with them. Such a far-flung defense, however, would have distanced you from who you truly were. And that “impostor” sense of self would have gravely injured your personal integrity.

So regardless of whether there are alterable elements in your personality and performance that you can and want to change, it may be high time to accept yourself as you naturally are.

As a fundamental identity issue, you’re certainly not being kind to yourself by continuing such deception. If you do, your essentially phony relationships, both with yourself and others, will provide you little satisfaction. And sacrificing your dignity by lying won’t culminate in the inner security that, however unconsciously, you’ve long searched for.

So ultimately, you’ll discover that, in a larger existential context, honesty remains the best policy.

© 2022 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

References

Beck, M. (2017, Dec 6). When is it okay to lie? https://www.huffpost.com/entry/when-is-it-ok-to-lie_n_5227369

Comaford, C. (2020, Oct 17). Why we lie, and the neuroscience behind it. https://www.forbes.com/sites/christinecomaford/2020/10/17/why-we-lie-an…

Dalrymple, T. (2017, Sep 12). Truth is not the only truth: Sometime it is necessary to suppress truth and tell lies. https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/psychiatric-disorder/201709/tru…

Ekman, P. (n.d.). Why people lie. https://www.paulekman.com/blog/why-people-lie/#:~:text=However%2C%20of%….

Mahon, J. E. (2015, Dec 25). The definition of lying and deception. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/lying-definition/

Seltzer, L. F. (2013, Dec 18). The intriguing upside of manipulation. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/evolution-the-self/201312/the-i…

Seltzer, L. F. (2019, Sep 25). How white are your white lies? https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/evolution-the-self/201909/how-w…

Shortsleeve, C. (2018, Oct 2). Honesty isn’t always the best policy in relationships. Here’s when experts say it might be better to lie. https://www.yahoo.com/news/honesty-isn-apos-t-always-161531564.html

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