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Wait, Lying Isn’t Inherently Bad?

The bright side of deceptive communication.

Key points

  • Despite popular opinion, deception isn't always bad.
  • Lying can be functional when used in prosocial ways (e.g., a surprise party) or to help someone in need (e.g., staging an intervention).
  • Whether deception is ultimately good or bad depends on the deceivers' intentions and motives.
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Deception
Source: MemoryMan/Shutterstock

Relationships are built on foundations of trust. When trust is broken, relationships suffer tremendously, and some won’t survive.

Some cultures, like those in North America, have an ideology of openness and honesty in our close relationships. In fact, Dr. Steve McCornack’s research explains how people expect truthfulness as a fundamental feature of conversations. People don’t enter interactions expecting others to lie to them—that would be too much cognitive effort.

Dr. Timothy Levine has devoted his life to deception and detection. His research on deception has been funded by the National Science Foundation, the United States Department of Defense, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)! Dr. Levine’s truth default theory explains how honesty is highly adaptive, and it enables efficient communication. However, the presumption of honesty makes us vulnerable to not noticing when people deceive us and inhibits our ability to detect deception.

Although we hope our friends and loved ones don’t just flat-out lie to us, research suggests that people engage in deception quite regularly in relationships. It’s not always just these obvious instances of intense fabrications of the truth that are considered deceptive.

Types of deception

Deception is any statement that someone makes to another person knowingly and intentionally distorting the truth. Dr. Levine’s work, alongside Dr. Judee Burgoon, emphasizes how deception is communicated through an assortment of façades, and lying is just one form of deception. From strategic ambiguity and insane fabrications to more subtle and mundane camouflages of truthful information, there are several forms of deceptive communication. The more ambiguous forms of deception, such as omission or avoidance, are actually the types of deception that occur most frequently in relationships. Yet, most people automatically attribute the word “lying” to a host of negative characteristics and assume that engaging in deception is a dark phenomenon that impedes and erodes our relationships.

Wutana Thongkuanluek/Shutterstock
Source: Wutana Thongkuanluek/Shutterstock

The dark side perspective to deception

But let’s take a spin on this. Let’s consider how deceiving can actually be helpful. Welcome to the Dark Side! When I refer to the dark side perspective of deception, I’m referring to instances when deceiving could actually be beneficial. The founders of studying the dark side, Dr. Brian Spitzberg and Dr. William Cupach, developed this perspective to shed light on the paradoxical nature of some communication, like deception.

And let’s be honest—we’ve all lied. In fact, some research suggests that we lie about one to two times a day in relationships. With strangers, it's even worse. Some studies suggest that we lie 77 percent of the time to people we don't know! Don’t believe me? Well, have you ever….

  • Exaggerated a story to make it more exciting?

  • Told someone you’ve had a great week when, in fact, it was awful?

  • Made an excuse that wasn’t actually true?

  • Told your spouse your shirt was old, though you just bought it?

  • Told your significant other you were texting your friend when it was someone else they didn’t like?

  • Told a child that the Tooth Fairy was real?

  • Helped conceal a surprise party?

If you’ve said “yes” to any of these statements, you’ve lied. But like the last example, being part of throwing a surprise party and concealing it from the guest of honor… is that really a bad thing? Unless they hate surprise parties, like my second father (it’s a long story), most people would agree that lying in this situation, under this motivation, is completely and totally fine. Actually, you might be in trouble for telling someone about their surprise party because you’ve ruined it.

And that’s the spin: Deception isn’t always a bad thing. There can be benefits to deception as well. Let me fill you in on a little secret; sometimes, honesty isn’t the best policy.

Source: Lunatictm/Shutterstock
Source: Lunatictm/Shutterstock

4 situations when deception is probably the best and right approach

  1. To your parents. Sometimes Mom and Dad don’t need to know the details of everything you’ve done. Though this depends on your age, as you get older, keeping some information from your parents isn’t inherently a bad thing. Your parents don’t need to know about the most recent argument you got into with your spouse or the number of sex partners you’ve had. In fact, the latter would be a tad strange. Therefore, and don’t hate me, parents, but you don’t need to know everything.
  2. To someone who needs help. Sometimes, in order to get someone to comply, deception might be useful. Take, for instance, a situation with someone who suffers from addiction. Potentially lying to them to get them to go to an intervention could save their life.
  3. To an elderly person suffering from a cognitive disease. I remember when my grandfather was suffering from dementia. What good was it to tell him the spatula isn’t a griddle? Instances like these can actually make the dementia-suffering individual more aggressive, and with something so minuscule, why even bother?
  4. To yourself. Lying to yourself can actually be very productive. Some personal disclosure here, I suffer from severe attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD). A professor at Arizona State University told me to start telling myself my ADHD made me a better person, and it would not hinder my academic performance. This professor told me to put it on a notecard, lay it on my nightstand, and tell myself this every night when I went to bed and every morning when I woke up for 30 days (emphasis on the 30 days). Why 30 days? Well, research says it takes about 30 days to form a habit. After 30 days, and I’m not even exaggerating, it transformed my life. That’s because it boosted my self-esteem and created a self-fulfilling prophecy: When you feel more confident, you might just work that much harder because of it.

If you haven’t noticed by now, what makes lying ethical are the deceivers’ intentions and motives. Our intentions and motives shape and highlight how deceptive communication lingers on the tightrope between ethical or unethical communication.

Keep finding the light in the dark!

—Dr. Samantha J. Shebib, Ph.D.

References

Burgoon, J. K., & Levine, T. R. (2010). Advances in deception detection. In S. W. Smith & S. R. Wilson (Eds.), New directions in interpersonal communication research (pp. 201-220). Sage.

McCornack, S. A. (1992). Information manipulation theory. Communication Monographs, 59, 1–16. https://doi.org/10.1080/03637759209376245

Spitzberg, B. H., & Cupach, W. R. (2007). The dark side of interpersonal communication (2nd ed.). Lawrence Erlbaum.

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