“If you tell the truth, you don't have to remember anything.” - Mark Twain
Consider a kid who says he went to the moon (and won’t back down about it) and then a kid who says his uncle is a congressman (when he’s really in city council). You can brush off moon kid. Maybe he’s destined to a be a creative genius or go on medication. But “congressman uncle” kid is out to get something with this tweaky upgrade. Unlike moon kid, you can’t be sure about this kid’s version of anything. Discerning his lies from reality becomes improbable and this makes him more deceptive (The bigger liar) than the kid who just bold faced lied.
Clearly, both these kids have problems and maybe their example proves that half truths are the bigger lies. But is lying really all that bad if the intention is good? Almost ALL of us do this to some degree -- tell white lies to spare others from harsh realities.
“Can you come over Friday night to my boring dinner party? I’m serving salt free tuna casserole.”
“Oh, I’m SO sorry. We have other plans.”
Sure, your plans are to sit at home and not go to her house, but that wasn’t what you implied with this half truth. Does this half truth really qualify as “The Biggest Lie?” Can people even really live lives of uncompromising truthfulness? Experts are split about the role of lying in our society and its effects.
This study from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania found that intention is key. Most people in the study were fine with lying as long as the intention was good. Lie to spare feelings and you’re ethical. Lie for personal gain and you’re a creep.
Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist at Oxford University in the United Kingdom, agrees. Lying for “the right reasons” was the subject of his study, of how lies affect relationships within social groups. The result? “Pro-social lies tend to form strong links with other individuals within their social networks.”
But science diverges from this “white lies are okay” line of thinking, when the health and well-being of the liar is analyzed. Turns out that swallowing the truth for personal gain, or for others, creates a palpable. potentially harmful, cognitive dissonance.
Two different studies by Stanford researchers have shown that the cognitive dissonance of white lies made subjects uncomfortable enough to part with cold hard cash to reinforce their lying.
“85% of diners in restaurants admitted to telling white lies when their dining experiences were unsatisfactory... [these same diners] were then likely to leave bigger tips than those who did not [lie].”
A different study, researchers gave all participants $100. Then half were primed to tell a white lie, while the other half were not given an opportunity to embellish. Those telling the small lies to researchers were willing to donate more than half the money back to the researchers when asked, as opposed to the non-liars who offered up only one-third of their winnings.
Add that study to this one from the University of Notre Dame showing that when people were encouraged to reduce/eliminate white lies over 10-weeks, those that did so reported feeling happier and healthier than their lying counterparts.
The takeaway? White lies can be arguably ethical especially if they help others feel closer to you or spare their feelings. But the person who lies is truly hurting themselves by creating and living with cognitive dissonance.
So what’s to be done? We suggest you take a longer view on your lying. You may be helping the acquaintance feel better, in the moment, when you lie about why you’re not going to her dinner party. But you may also be setting yourself up for a future of lying to her as the invites keep rolling in. Perhaps there is benefit to saying you don’t enjoy salt free casserole or dinner parties with her friends. And, if you value her friendship, offer a date for coffee instead. It will sting, yes. But now she knows why you never come to her place for dinner, and she also knows you still like her. Best of all, you never have to lie to her and feel bad about it, again.