By Ari Mistry | February 19, 2020
Think of some of the stories you were told growing up. You might remember Pinocchio - the one about the wooden puppet with a built-in lie detector of a nose who just wanted to be a real boy. According to the Blue Fairy, the only way he could earn his humanity was by being a "good person" and therefore never telling a lie. In The Boy Who Cried Wolf, lying is what caused the little boy to lose all of his sheep. He gave so many false alarms that nobody trusted him when he actually needed help.
Everything that we learn growing up tells us in stark terms that lying is bad. Always. But what if the Blue Fairy was wrong? As a society, we paint lying as something that everyone should avoid, yet we do it every single day. Loads of people feel pressured to lie in ordinary conversations. Whether it is claiming that you have seen a famous movie or saying that the food you are eating is good when you would rather spit it out, lying can often feel like a mandatory part of social interaction. So, where does the line between politeness end and lying begin, or are they completely intertwined? Is it possible to have a completely honest society and if so, will it actually be better than the one we live in right now?
It might sound like a stretch to say that people lie “all the time” just to be polite, but consider a study done at the University of Massachusetts by psychologist Robert S. Feldman. There were 121 pairs of strangers told to have ten-minute conversations with each other, unaware that they were being videotaped. After rewatching the videotapes, everyone was asked to count the number of lies they had told about themselves, big or small. Much to the participants' surprise, about 60% of the people couldn't even hold a ten-minute conversation without lying at least once. On average, people told about two or three lies. If they hadn’t been videotaped, nobody would have second guessed the conversations. Apparently telling a few fibs doesn’t automatically make you a terrible person.
That said, just because lying happens a lot doesn’t mean that we should dismiss it as a problem. It can be used in manipulation, for personal gain, or to hurt others. But where do we draw the line? I reached out to University of Michigan professor Sarah Buss in search of answers. Professor Buss has a PhD in philosophy and specializes in ethics and moral psychology. When asked if there might be a universal rule to govern whether or not lying is ethical, she responded, “Many people think that for any moral principle you can think of, you can also come think of one or more special circumstance in which you should not conform to the principle . . . It is generally wrong to lie. But it also seems as though there are exceptions. If a rampaging murderer is looking for the innocent people who are hiding in your basement, it seems to me (and to most others) that it is permissible (and even obligatory) for you to assure him that the people he is looking for are on the other side of town.”
When the wellbeing of others is at stake, the ethics of lying can change. In 2015, a Harvard psychologist named Felix Warneken had adults make two drawings. One was objectively pretty good, and the other one was awful. They showed the drawings to kids and asked for their opinions. When the adults did not seem too invested in the drawings, the kids were more likely to be truthful about their opinions and would tell them if it wasn’t very good. However, when the adults were visibly upset by their bad drawing abilities, the kids were quick to comfort them and tell them it wasn’t actually too bad.
This type of scenario is known as prosocial lying - lies told completely for the benefit of others or what many people like to call “white lies.” It turns out that these types of lies are more powerful than just making someone else feel better in that moment. Research shows that there are actually long term benefits to prosocial lies in strengthening and improving relationships with others. In children, it can actually be a sign of healthy development. As children get older, their ability to empathize gets stronger and stronger. When children like the ones in Warneken study tell lies, it shows that they are taking the emotions of others into account when deciding on their actions.
Later in life, prosocial lying can be vital to creating balanced and inclusive workplaces. A study published by The Royal Society analyzed prosocial lying in a workplace environment and found that “totally honest interactions prevent diversity in the form of highly clustered social subgroups, whereas totally dishonest interactions result in the destruction of the social network.” This basically means that while there are harmful or “antisocial” lies that should be avoided, we can still benefit from a little dishonesty because it helps people get along. In the end, a few fibs are a small price to pay for strong collaboration and unity.
In the end there is no black and white rule for whether lying is good or bad. You shouldn't go excusing all of your lies as prosocial from now on, but recognize that the world is just too complex to try and eliminate all instances of bending the truth. The key is that not all lies are the same. They are told by different people, in different situations, to different people, for different reasons.
So yeah, The Boy Who Cried Wolf might be a good bedtime story, but I want to hear about the Boy Who Cried Wolf To Protect The Wolf’s Feelings. Politeness brings a new level of complexity to the ethics of lying that we can all think about in our daily interactions with others.