“Prosocial Deception”

We’ve all done it – been less than honest with another person.

We usually can justify such behavior by saying we acted that way because we did not want to hurt that person’s feelings or we are trying to reassure them. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal,  if we were brutally honest all the time, our relationships would implode.

Apparently there is a formal name for these white lies, and it is “prosocial deception,” and according to a recent research study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, compassionate people lie more than others, and that such lying can have negative consequences for the person being lied to.

Elizabeth Bernstein, the author of the article, points out that “… sometimes we tell white lies for selfish reasons—to avoid an argument or the discomfort of hurting or embarrassing someone. Or even to manipulate. This can damage our relationships, especially if the recipient knows we are lying.”

So is it ever OK to tell a little white lie? The WSJ article includes a summary of when such lying may be appropriate:

  • Err on the side of kindness. Go for the well-intended lie when there are no long-term consequences.
  • Consider the timing. Avoid the harsh truth when there is little the target can do to change in the moment.
  • Lie if the person wants reassurance. Often when people ask questions such as, “Do I look bad in this dress?” or “Did I make a fool out of myself at that party?” they aren’t looking for honest answers. They’re looking for help in not feeling worse.
  • Ask the person if he or she generally prefers the truth. Some people do. But ask this question well in advance of an actual lying situation.
  • Question whether you are being manipulative. Do you really want the person to feel better? Or are do you want them to give you something, like affection or a gift?
  • Don’t lie if the person is likely to find out the truth. Especially if it is from someone else.
  • Be truthful if you want someone to change. If a person truly needs help—maybe his or her excess at a party was due to substance abuse—it may better to directly address that rather than to try to avoid his or her embarrassment or an argument.
  • Remember the Golden Rule. Ask yourself if you’d like to be told the same lie.

So if any of you want to practice telling white lies, feel free to comment on this post with phrases like:

“I love reading your blog.”

“This is one of the best posts that you’ve ever written.”

“Wow, your words were just what I needed to hear today.”

Given that I live in a fantasy world, I won’t even recognize such comments as white lies…


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