Is it Ever Okay to Tell a Lie?

Here's a formula for calculating the risk involved in telling a lie.

Posted Apr 23, 2018

Do you remember when you first learned about the concept of the white lie? It might have been when you were you a child and an adult fudged the truth to keep you from being upset or sad. Or someone might have promised you a reward for a particular behavior, but the "reward" really didn't exist. If you're a parent yourself, you might use white lies to keep your child from worrying about lost toys, forgotten play dates, or to not be afraid of an immunization, because he's such a big boy that the shot "won't even hurt."

Are you a parent, yourself, who uses white lies to keep your child from knowing that a beloved toy was lost or a favorite piece of clothing was no longer wearable? Or to distract your son or daughter from something that was beyond your means? “No one really has fun at Disney, it’s just too crowded! Let’s have our own fun down at the neighborhood park!” Relax, most people consider it totally socially acceptable and culturally congruent for parents to use white lies with their kids (Lupoli, Jampol, & Oveis, 2017).

We also learn about the difference between “acceptable” lies and “forbidden” lies when most of us are young. When we lie about having stolen something from a friend or a store or about our grades or our behavior, we are learning to use white lies to protect ourselves from punishment. We might tell a boss that we have the flu and are taking a sick day when we're really needing a "mental health day" just to hang out at home and binge watch Netflix. The lessons we learn about the boundaries between truth and consequences when we are young are likely to stay with us for a lifetime.

The marker between types of lies usually comes down to the purpose of the lie or its intent. Lies that are meant to protect others or ease their burdens are lies that are generally considered to be acceptable under specific circumstances. If someone is terminally ill and death is growing imminent, assuring them that they are going to “get better” is not usually “acceptable,” unless the certainty of imminent death would be too much for her to hear at that moment in time. However, reassuring a child that “grandma doesn't feel well right now" might be considered a kinder choice than informing a young child that death is near.

If you’re lying to spare others harm or pain, that’s considered prosocial lying and is often a sign that you’ve got a well-developed sense of empathy and can choose to act compassionately towards others. If you’re lying to keep yourself out of trouble, that’s not exactly a testament to your altruism or kindness.

When do “White Lies” become “Snow Jobs”?

Telling a white lie about why you’re no longer employed isn’t a big deal, but lying to potential employers in ways that could be easily revealed might come back to bite you on the derriere.

Telling a white lie about why you’re not able to meet up with a group of friends because you’re currently at odds with a member of the group is generally acceptable, but turning your “opt out” message into an opportunity to diss the mutual friend is likely to lead to deeper conflicts and potentially additional damaged relationships when others hear about the negative things you’ve said about the mutual friend. And word will get out...“secrets” told are “secrets” meant to be shared.

Telling a white lie about why you need to cancel a date with a romantic partner is okay if the discovery of the “truth” behind the white lie isn’t damaging to your partner. If you’re privileging tickets to a ballgame or a night out with the boys over dinner with your partner, that’s not considered too out-of-bounds. Canceling the date with a partner to spend time with another romantic interest, however, is a “truth” that might be in your own selfish interest, but a truth that might do lasting damage to the other’s feelings.

Self-Protection is a Normal Reaction to Personal Pain

When you are fired from a job, it’s natural to want to find a way to make yourself out to be the “hero” or a “victim” of an unjust boss or a rigged system. Thus, you resort to “white lies” to adjust the “optics” of the situation. You might choose to bolster your self-image—“The boss knew I was better than she was at the job and she had to get rid of me because she was threatened by my success and potential.” Or, on the other hand, you might opt to make yourself the target of sympathy, “The company is going through a reorganization and when it’s every man for himself, the head honchos only protect their own.”

Unfortunately, not every “white lie” will stay benign—sometimes a white lie turns into a white-out blizzard of lies that no longer serve to protect a person’s ego or the feelings of others; white lies that become deceptions that go on too long or are no longer “containable” can cause a lot of damage to relationships that were once meant to be protected through the use of a lie.

It All Comes Down to a Simple Equation

There are two factors that are involved when you are deciding whether or not to use a white lie to obscure the truth. These are 1) the measure the intent of the lie and 2) the potential fall-out if you’re found out. Weigh these factors carefully before you risk telling the lie, no matter how “harmless” it may seem. If the benefits to yourself outweigh the costs to the other, the lie is likely better off untold.

References

Camden, C., Motley, M. T., & Wilson, A. (2009). White lies in interpersonal communication: A taxonomy and preliminary investigation of social motivations. Western Journal of Speech Communication, 48(4), 309-325.

Lupoli, M. J., Jampol, L., & Oveis, C. (2017). Lying because we care: Compassion increases prosocial lying. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 146(7), 1026-2042.

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