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Four Colors of Lies


Explanations > Behaviors > Lying > Four Colors of Lies

Two dimensions | Four types | So what


There are four types of lie that can be characterized by naming them with four colors: Gray, White, Black and Red.

Two dimensions

To get the four colors we need to create two dimensions which are each subdivided into two categories. These are about who is affected by the lie.

How it affects me

The forces of evolution naturally push us towards self-preservation, especially when we feel threatened. When basic needs seem at risk we hence become inclined to lie in order to protect ourselves.

We also lie to get less basic needs, for example to fulfil our personal or received goals. Lying always causes values conflict and selfish lies cause even greater dissonance. This hence tends to reduce self as a primary reason for lying (or at least in terms of personal justification).

How it affects others

What we say often has an effect on others, especially when we are directly communicating with them. Lies may help or harm others and the thought of this impacts how or whether we lie.

The decision to lie to others is particularly affected by social values which at least say we should do no harm. As a result, decisions to lie can be a complex balance of who is affected and by how much.

Four lies

The four types of lie can be illustrated by the matrix below.



Four Colors of Lies

How it affects others
Others lose out in some way Others get positive benefit

How it affects me

I get positive benefit
I lose out in some way

Black lie


Gray lie

Red lie


White lie


White lie

In this model, white lies are altruistic as we seek first to help others, even at some cost to ourselves.

In practice, there are shades of white and what we tell ourselves are white lies are often tending more towards gray than pure white.

Even when we lose out significantly, there is arguably always some benefit, for example in the way we feel good about our actions and how others praise or thank us for our selflessness.

Gray lie

Most of the lies we tell are gray lies. They are partly to help others and partly to help ourselves. They may vary in the shade of gray, depending on the balance of help and harm.

Gray lies are, almost by definition, hard to clarify. For example you can lie to help a friend out of trouble but then gain the reciprocal benefit of them lying for you while those they have harmed in some way lose out.

Black lie

Black lies are about simple and callous selfishness. We tell black lies when others gain nothing and the sole purpose is either to get ourselves out of trouble (reducing harm against ourselves) or to gain something we desire (increasing benefits for ourselves).

The worst black lies are very harmful for others. Perhaps the very worst gain us a little yet harm others a great deal.

Red lie

Red lies are about spite and revenge. They are driven by the motive to harm others even at the expense of harming oneself. They may even be carved in blood.

When we are angry at others, perhaps because of a long feud or where we feel they have wronged us in some way, we feel a sense of betrayal and so seek retributive justice, which we may dispense without thought of consequence.

So what?

Seek to understand lies and the motivation beneath them. Then respond to the lies in ways that help people tell the truth or otherwise further your aims.

When lying yourself, question your own motives. It is easy to think you are telling white lies when actually they are a certain shade of gray.

See also

Why We Lie, White Lies


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