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When Lying Is Good

A new study out of Wharton shows that there are times when lying is actually ethical. Welcome to the age of benevolent deception.

When Lying Is Good
[Person Lying: Borja Andreu via Shutterstock]

No lie: There are times when not telling the truth is a good thing.

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That’s according to a new study about the ethics of lying released today by the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

“We say lying is wrong in our personal and professional lives, but we often catch ourselves feeling very uncomfortable when we have to tell the truth, such as when we deliver critical feedback or when we tell grandpa that we don’t like the oranges he sends us every year as a birthday present,” says Emma Levine, a doctoral candidate at Wharton, who co-authored the study. “We lie all the time and we see other people doing it, so we get very mixed messages.”

Levine and her co-author, Wharton professor Maurice Schweitzer, dig into these issues by showing that lies come in many flavors: well-intentioned lies are considered moral, while selfish or meaningless lies are considered immoral.

The truth is that we all lie–but sometimes it’s with the intention of sparing the feelings of others or preventing others from experiencing psychological harm. The new Wharton paper points to many examples of this: We might tell our host that their meat loaf is delicious or tell a colleague that their work makes a valuable contribution, when we don’t believe these things to be true.

In everyday speech, we sometimes call these statements “white lies,” but this phrase gives the impression that these deceptions are inconsequential. Yet people lie in high-stakes scenarios all the time: Parents might deceive their children about the state of their marriage or doctors might lie to their patients about exactly how terrible their diagnosis is to help them recover better. “We are often very conflicted when we lie and are spend a lot of energy wrestling with our decision to lie,” Levine says.

Levine and Schweitzer wanted to scientifically identify exact instances when lying is considered immoral. To do this, they put hundreds of subjects through scenarios involving deception to see whether they judged particular forms of lying to be good or bad. For example, in some cases, lying to someone might result in giving the recipient of the lie a few dollars; in other cases, lying to someone might result in taking a few dollars away from the recipient of the lie.

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The results were unanimous: Lying to help another person was consistently perceived to be good, while lying that had no effect on the other person or that actually harmed them was perceived to be wrong. In the paper, Levine and Scheweitzer write: “Individuals with altruistic intentions are perceived to be more moral, more benevolent, and more honest, even when they lie.” (Emphasis theirs.)

This is a major development in ethical research, because until now, lies have been studied as a single category of selfish, wrongheaded behavior. Levine and Scheweitzer make it possible to think critically about lying and to consider instances when it might be productive and healthy. “There might be interpersonal benefits that help others that require lying,” Levine says. “It’s important to move the conversation in that direction.”

So what can we do with this information? As a first step, we can stop feeling guilty about every lie we utter. This sinking feeling prevents us from thinking rationally about our objectives and intentions: In some cases, benevolent lies may be the kindest and most reasonable course of action.

“From a business perspective, most managers feel very conflicted about lying to their employees,” Levine says. “Most companies say that they really value honesty and integrity, but every day managers are not sharing complete information for the sake of protecting employees’ feelings or privacy. The advice on the table is that rather than saying something is bad then doing it anyway, we should be thinking critically about when lying might be the right thing to do.”

She hopes that this research allows people to have a more nuanced and open discussion about their behavior and motivations.

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However, Levine makes it clear that not all lies are good: There are many lies that are harmful, self-interested, and just plain wrong. “I want to reiterate that people tell lies that are selfish and lies that don’t help anyone,” she says. “The point of our study is that helping others is often more important than honesty.”

About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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