Are White Lies More Harmful Than Useful

By M.Farouk Radwan, MSc.

Why Do we Resort to White Lies?

Have you ever been in a situation where telling the truth was not really a good option? It often happens that we think that telling the truth would be unnecessary and even undiplomatic. We think that it is better if we tell a little white lie that spares the feelings of the person you are dealing with and makes everyone happy.

We think that honesty is not always the best policy and that since the truth most of the time hurts, you don’t want people to hear it coming from your mouth so that they wouldn’t dislike you. (see also Why do people lie)

You would probably tell a white lie to a friend who has just had a new haircut and is asking you how good he/she looks. Although you know it is your duty to advise your friend well, you would instantly think, “He/she seems so happy about it. How can I get myself to say you look awful with that haircut? Wouldn’t I be unpleasant?”

When a waiter asks you if you like your meal you also think you would be rude if you tell him that he has messed up your order. You think you are the kindest of all because you were able to make that waiter smile thinking he did a great job. Your compassion for people and your desire to not offend anyone makes you believe that white lies are justified.

What psychology says about white lies

You tell a white lie in order not to hurt the feelings of the person you lie to. But you have never considered that this white lie can hurt you. The following study would probably get you thinking. Researchers Jennifer Argo and Baba Shiv held a study in 2012 to examine what happens when customers tell white lies.

They found that 85% of diners in restaurants tell white lies when their dining experiences were unsatisfactory. Interestingly, it was also found that diners who told white lies are likely to leave a bigger tip than those who didn’t.

Can you believe that 95% of the waiters in the study said they knew when customers were lying about such things and 100% of the waiters said they knew this meant they would get a bigger tip. Without being trained to detect lies waiters can take advantage of your kind wish not to hurt their feelings. This would put you in a lose-win situation.

cognitive dissonance & lying

The reason is what psychologists call cognitive dissonance and what we can understand as “situations in which our actions and words differ from our beliefs”.

These situations make us experience psychological and emotional discomfort. This problem can be solved by changing either our words or our beliefs. But since it is difficult to convince our appetites to accept what they didn’t order, it is easier to change our words.

When we have feelings of self-reproach for lying, no matter what good cause these white lies were for, we tend to do nice things for the person we have lied to. Leaving an extra tip for the waiter is explained by the study as an attempt to make up for our dishonesty because our conscience can’t put up with it. (see How your subconscious mind affects your behaviour)

Similarly, if you lie to your friend you would unconsciously start blaming yourself for making him/her believe the haircut is perfect. But in this case it would be a lose-lose situation because you would be uncomfortable and he/she would remain looking bad.

The findings of the study suggest that the result of white lies is not just saving the person you lie to from embarrassment. If you think you are doing good by not hurting anyone’s feelings, begin to think of how telling white lies makes you subconsciously unhappy and decide if it’s worth it.

How To Avoid Telling White Lies

If you think that the truth is too harsh to be told, there are a few things that can help you overcome this feeling.

  • 1)Play with words, It all depends on the way you tell the truth: You should not say, “This outfit looks bad on you”. Instead try, “It is fine but the one you were wearing the other day is way better.” Avoid saying, “This haircut is lousy”. Rather say, “You always look good and when you get bored of this haircut, you can try the one that…..”. (see also Tips to improve your communication skills)
  • 2)Play it smart: If you are still worried about hurting the feelings of people who matter to you then try to beautify the ugly truth with a compliment (which also has to be sincere). When people hear that one thing is bad but there’s another good thing to balance it, they do not get offended.
  • 3)Truth is hurtful but valuable: If your friend looks bad with a certain haircut, are you sure you want to be the reason he/she never knows? Sometimes people need to hear the truth even if it hurts because it is emotionally unhealthy to remain deluded. If you tell the truth, your words would be like medicine: they may taste bitter but they would get people better. Trust me on this: that is what many people seek in a friend. So you don’t have to worry about people disliking you.

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