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Why All Your Little White Lies Aren’t As Harmless As You Think

All those soothing little lies you tell people might come back to bite you. Here’s why it’s always better to tell the truth–even when it hurts.

Why All Your Little White Lies Aren’t As Harmless As You Think
[Image: Flickr user Nikos Koutoulas]

Growing up, I was surrounded by truth-tellers. I’d come home from the salon with a new haircut and my mother would say, “I have to get used to it.” I’d grab for a second cookie and my sister would interject, “Do you really think you should eat that?”

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All those little unfiltered nuggets would sting for a moment, but “telling it like it is” is a family trait. The new cheesecake recipe my mom tried at Thanksgiving? I’m the one who told her it wasn’t good.

While many people might think a white lie works in these situations, Sam Harris, neuroscientist and author of the book, Lying, says honesty is always the best policy. “The people who undo their lives, and destroy relationships and careers, always accomplish this through lying,” he says. “The decision to not lie is the best prophylactic I’ve ever come across for not bringing needless misery into your life.”

Harris believes you should never tell a lie–not even the “white” ones we use to spare others discomfort. “They tend to be the only lies that good people tell, while imagining that they are being good in the process,” he says. Here are five reasons all those little white lies are damaging:

1. You undermine people’s trust.

If a friend overhears you tell a lie to someone else, especially if it’s told in a way that seemed genuine, you damage your relationship. “You’ve just revealed that you’re willing to lie when it suits your purpose,” says Harris. “If the friend is sensitive to it, they’ll notice that their trust in you has been diminished–-even if the lie had nothing to do with them. And they’ll question how often you’ve told them a lie.”

White lies can be especially damaging if your children overhear them. “You are your kids’ greatest source of safety,” says Harris. “When you demonstrate that you are willing to deceive, you diminish that sense of security they have in you.”

2. You don’t allow a chance for improvement.

People often tell white lies to avoid sharing truths that feel awkward. For example, your wife might ask how you think she looks in her new outfit or your coworker might ask your thoughts on an idea. You don’t have to volunteer every negative thought you have, says Harris, but when you’re asked for an opinion, it helps to share what’s useful. “Follow the golden rule,” says Harris. “If you were asking the question, would you be grateful to know the truth, however awkward it was to articulate?”

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If the person asking for the opinion is mature, they’re going to want to know if they’re under-performing, he says. If they’re not, you should question if the relationship needs to be maintained.

3. You compromise your ethics.

Telling white lies is like treating relationships like one-off transactions, says Harris. “It helps to go through life assuming you’ll have an ongoing relationship with every stranger you meet,” he says. “Being honest is part of that.”

Your basis for telling the truth should be genuine concern for others. Connect with the part of you that cares about the well-being of others, and tactfully share what you really believe.

4. You’re put on your guard.

Lies have a way of catching up with those who tell them. You always have to be on guard, making sure the thing you’ve said doesn’t collide with reality or the rules of logic, says Harris. “Telling the truth frees you from the effort it takes to present a false image of yourself,” he says.

5. You stunt your emotional growth.

Telling white lies allows you to hide who you really are, but telling the truth holds a mirror to your mind. “When you commit to telling the truth, you immediately discover what sort of person you are,” says Harris. “If you don’t like what you see, committing to tell the truth can lead to becoming a better, deeper person.”