By Namu Ju
Believe me when I say I lie, and I lie often. Lying is part of our everyday lives, and there’s no getting around it. Deception expert Robert Feldman, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, conducted a study which found that a person tells an average of three lies for every ten minutes of conversation—and this rate is thought to be at the low end of the norm.
Although we’re taught to value honesty, we spend much of our lives lying to one another. Often, shades of dishonesty take shape in what we describe as tact, social grace, kindness, and compassion. And while there is a distinction between ‘prosocial lies,’ or lies meant to benefit others—white lies—how does dishonesty affect ourselves and others?
Can’t Handle the Truth?
Studies have shown, we tend to convince ourselves or remain convinced of what we want to believe. The psychological theory of ‘motivated reasoning’ describes this reflex of seeking out information in support of our already established beliefs while we devalue or ignore information presented to challenge our opinions. In these cases, white lies allow us to remain comfortable in our beliefs, whether or not these beliefs are factual or verifiable. Evolving one’s perspective inevitably brings about feelings of danger and threat to one’s worldview.
Dr Emma Levine, an assistant professor of behavioural science at the University of Chicago, conducted a study about prosocial lies, and how lying works to build and maintain relationships. She found, “people care about whether you have good intentions a lot more than whether the person is being honest per se.” In her studies, Levine makes an important distinction between ‘benevolence-based trust’ and ‘integrity-based trust.’ White lies help build benevolence-based trust and strengthen social bonds, but harm integrity-based trust—which is necessary for a trustworthy perspective toward one’s self, growth and well-being.
The Consequences of White Lies
Dishonesty is a large part of our everyday interactions, yet the consequences of white lies vary based on the relationship type—but all of them are worth serious consideration.
Research about parenting techniques suggests children’s mental and emotional health is directly influenced by white lies. Parents naturally and rightly want to see their children succeed in all their endeavours and have a strong pull to protect their children from failure and pain. In this way, parents often end up using lies to shield their children from some of the harsher realities of life. Parenting expert Tim Elmore says, “character, faith, and resilience are often developed through failure.” Preventing children from facing or overcoming adversity stunts their problem-solving abilities as well as their self-esteem.
White lies are often referred to as paternalistic lies and align with parental impulses to protect others within romantic relationships, as well as in friendships. However, dishonesty breeds mistrust. Deception in the name of self-interest is usually hurtful, damaging, and cruel– but many believe white lies are acceptable and kinder than honesty. White lies such as “I like your new haircut,” “No, that outfit looks great on you,” or even “It’s okay” may all seem kind and polite, but these types of statements may breed mistrust, resentment, and lack of responsibility. It robs everyone of the opportunity for growth, perspective, and self-awareness.
The Necessity of Honesty
Well-intentioned dishonesty may help ease social tensions temporarily, but it eventually falls short of building trustworthy social bonds.
Practising honesty requires vulnerability, which requires courage. Still, Levine says, “we systematically overestimate how uncomfortable truth-telling will be.” With honesty, there is always a risk of rejection or conflict, but rejection and conflict are necessary for maturity and self-acceptance. Similar to parents allowing children to learn resilience through failure and difficulty, we allow ourselves and those around us the opportunity to develop the skills required to navigate tricky social situations effectively.
Though white lies are used to soothe others, they can take a toll on the person telling the lie. Studies show dishonesty gets in the way of real intimacy and vulnerability, without which we isolate each other and ourselves. Psychotherapist Victoria Lorient-Faibish says, “frequent lies can increase our guilt and anxiety, which can lead to depression, and in many cases, paranoia over being found out.” Practising honesty, on the other hand, allows for the freedom necessary for one’s mental health.
While some people hide behind the guise of honesty to pass on malice or harm– compassionate honesty is essential for building authentic connections and valuable relationships. If the question is kindness and respect, the kindest and most respectful way to regard each other is to recognise and respond to the reality of each other’s personhood.
This position allows us to honour our own reality and provides the opportunity for growth and self-awareness. Practising consideration of others’ feelings is noble and important, but compassion and kindness are always compatible with truth.