Is It Ever Okay to Lie?

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The problem with the “Do Not Lie” prohibition is we all lie. If you’ve ever told a child that Santa Claus was on his way in his sleigh or that you loved the weird socks that your aunt sent as a gift, you lied. But you can let yourself off the hook.

These were more like white lies. With a real lie, the intent is malicious and the consequence is serious. While with a white lie, often more like a harmless bending of the truth, the intent is benign and positive, and usually the consequence isn’t major.

The adage that you always should tell the truth is mostly right, but in some situations fibs or white lies have a purpose.

White Lies vs. Real Lies

White lies are often innocuous. We tell them to create a magical world for our children, or, more often, as a way to be polite and demonstrate social manners.

Overall, white lies are for beneficial purposes. Being totally honest in some cases would create unpleasantness or be offensive. Some view white lies as a sign of civility.

Real lies tend to be more self-serving. They may result in negative consequences for yourself and others.

How White Lies Can Be Good for Us

If we lie to benefit other people, these are considered white lies. Here’s a good illustration: A student had a hard time his first week at college and told his parents he was doing well so they wouldn’t worry.

In this situation, he was thoughtful about other people’s feelings and was guided by empathy and kindness. The second week he adjusted and was glad he didn’t upset his parents prematurely.

Scientists call these well-intended falsehoods prosocial lies. These differ from antisocial lies, which are told for personal gain. According to research, prosocial lies can actually build trust and a sense of benevolence between people.

How Real Lies Can Be Bad for Us

With real lies, the intent is often selfish. These are the most damaging kinds of lies. To find evidence of them, look for falsehoods that promote a person’s self-interests obviously at the expense of others.

To make it clearer, if your best girlfriend asks how she looks in her new dress and you think it’s too tight, but you say she looks great to boost her self-esteem, that’s a white lie. But complimenting her because you want to look better than her at the party, which is competitive and more indicative of selfish intent is a real lie.

When it comes to truth telling, deception and trust, real lies can be destructive. If things don’t add up or if you suspect someone of lying, there are ways to find out.

What to Consider Before Telling a Lie

Let's look at what you might want to think about before you decide to tell a white lie or a real lie.

Evaluate the Intention

When someone lies out of altruism to protect others or ease their pain, these lies are considered acceptable white lies. White lies usually benefit the person listening.

For example, if your neighbor is dying of cancer, rather than frighten your young son with his impending death, it’s okay to say he’s not feeling well right now.

This is an example of prosocial lying and reflects empathy and compassion. It also takes into account what is age appropriate for your son.

Consider the Long-Term Consequences

While white lies are often minor or inconsequential, real lies have far reaching effects. Real lies tend to initially benefit the liar, too.

For example, if Dan took the data his co-worker amassed and presented the project as his own, Dan blatantly lied and acted in a self-serving and clearly untruthful way. When his supervisor learned the truth, Dan was sent to human resources as a consequence.

Overall, it's important to look at the morality and societal acceptance of the type of life. White lies are acceptable and help our society function. Real lies are deemed to be universally wrong.

Why Do People Lie?

There are many reasons why people lie. Some common motives for lying include:

  • To be considerate. Lying out of consideration can mean to protect someone else’s feelings, for the sake of diplomacy, or to keep stability in our relationships. These are the common white lies that help us maintain harmony with our spouses, family, friends and neighbors. For example, if your child just began studying violin and is making a horrible racket, you might tell him he sounds fantastic to encourage him.
  • To protect our ego and self-image. Another reason why we don’t tell the truth is based on psychological compensation: to protect how we're perceived by others. Rather than admit you lost your job, for example, you might tell your sibling that you quit because it was no longer challenging enough.
  • To compensate for our sensitivity to power. For example, rather than question your boss’s new plan which you find shaky, you feel compelled to support it. You respond by saying that you love the plan to protect your job.

The Danger of Telling Too Many Lies

A 2016 study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience showed that the brain adapts to dishonesty. The more participants engaged in self-serving dishonesty, the more likely that behavior would increase with repetition. Small acts escalated into bigger transgressions.

That’s as good a reason as ever to stop lying. Even seemingly innocuous lies can become a habit, like second nature. In fact, it may become easier than being honest. You get to spare people’s feelings and pretend you are less flawed than you are. That can be very enticing.

The second danger of telling too many lies might result in not getting the help you need. For example, saying "I'm fine," which seems like an innocuous fib, masks the fact that you are still struggling on many fronts. This may preclude others from suggesting you get mental health counseling or you yourself from realizing that you could benefit from therapy.

Benefits of Honesty

You must always be honest with yourself about what you’re doing and why. Then you must try to be as honest as you can be with loved ones. We are all human, but that should be the goal.

After all, if your partner doesn’t know the truth and how you are evolving as a person, that person doesn’t know the real you. You are not experiencing real intimacy then. Intimacy demands vulnerability and honesty. You might also be depriving your family of the chance to show you that they see you for all your foibles and accept and love you as you are.

Less Lying Has Been Linked to Better Health

Evidence shows that Americans average about 11 lies per week. Another reason to strive to tell the truth and reduce lies? Anita E. Kelly, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame discovered during her research that participants who reduced lies and tried to live more honestly actually reported improved relationships and better mental and physical health.

Participants stopped making excuses for being late or not completing tasks. They also figured out other ways to avoid lying and the results were significant.

When It’s Necessary to Lie

Sometimes the stakes are high and lies are necessary to safeguard someone’s well-being. In these types of situations, lying for the sake of protecting yourself or loved ones is deemed acceptable:

  1. Lying to an abuser to escape from or protect someone from domestic abuse.
  2. Lying to an abuser to protect children from child abuse.
  3. Lying to someone who is playing with weapons.
  4. Lying to someone who seems intoxicated or on drugs.
  5. Lying to someone who seems to be suffering a mental health issue.

Lying to Our Loved Ones

What if our relatives are grappling with mental health problems or impairment? And it’s not an emergency situation, but it’s clear there is an ongoing problem?Sometimes lies are necessary to help them.

Meredith Gordon Resnick, LCSW, says, “Studies show that for people with severe dementia, sometimes telling an untruth, and doing it carefully and mindfully so as not to undermine trust, may be appropriate. Challenging someone with severe memory impairment to 'face the truth' of certain situations—even those that seem benign to someone else—can cause agitation and fear, and can break trust, too. It’s a delicate, individual balance."

So while honesty is usually the best policy, there are exceptions. Just about all religions and belief systems, however, extol the virtue of honesty. So while it’s okay to lie, in most cases, it’s better to strive not to.

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2 Sources
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  1. Levine E, Schweitzer M. Prosocial lies: When deception breeds trust. Org Behav Hum Decis Process. 2015;126:88-106. doi:10.1016/j.obhdp.2014.10.007

  2. Garrett N, Lazzaro SC, Ariely D, Sharot T. The brain adapts to dishonestyNat Neurosci. 2016;19(12):1727-1732. doi:10.1038/nn.4426