How we change what others think, feel, believe and do
Explanations > Behaviors > Lying > White Lies
White lies are... | Types of white lie | Reasons for white lies | The impact of white lies | Detecting white lies | So what
We all lie, even those good people who value honesty above most other things. Sometimes we consider our untruths to be 'white lies'. So what exactly are these white lies?
White lies are...
What we call 'white lies' are those untruths which we tell in order to minimize harm, embarrassment or distress. In doing so, we moderate what we and others know, think or feel.
We usually tell white lies to help others, though it may also be for our own benefit. Often, both we and others benefit, for example in the way that white lies help sustain our good relationship.
If you add up the all the harm that telling the truth would create and subtract the harm caused from telling a white lie, then this gives some measure of the net benefit of the white lie.
We could hence define white lies as 'Untruths that reduce net harm'. This is a little coarse as it can be really helpful for us and harmful for others and still come out as a positive.
What might be called altruistic white lies may be defined as 'Untruths that reduce net harm to others'. This is more likely to fit into the common understanding of white lies being 'good' (ie. of benefit to others).
An even purer form of white lie is one that is only ever helpful. This can be simply defined 'Untruths that do no harm'. The important aspect of such lies is nobody is harmed, so the net harm is always guaranteed to be zero or only ever helpful.
Types of white lie
Here are a several types of lie that we typically describe as 'white'.
White lies may be completely opposite to the truth, For example, when a person thinks their partner's clothes are unattractive but still says they 'look good'.
Outright lies may be somewhat exaggerated in order to negate any suspicious of the truth. Hence a person may say 'you look absolutely wonderful' rather than simply 'you look good'.
Sometimes we try to tell the truth but end up avoiding the whole truth, for example saying that some other clothes might be more appropriate when the truth is that we hate the clothes being show us.
Softened truths often include qualifiers that seek to reduce the impact of the truth, for example when a person says that they prefer different clothes or that the clothes are not very flattering.
There are also white lies of omission, where there is a clear opportunity to say something but comment is avoided, for example where a person makes excuses to leave when comments on clothes might get invited.
Omissions may be made using methods such as changing the subject, feigning confusion, passing the buck to someone else, excusing oneself to leave or simply avoiding being there in the first place.
In an obvious metaphor, 'gray lies' are not as pure and selfless as white lies. The principle also implies there are many shades of gray. In practice, almost all white lies have some shade of gray in them.
There are also black lies that have no white in them (ie. the liar does nothing to help the other person).
Reasons for white lies
Why do we tell white lies? Here are several reasons.
A common situation where 'white lies' are told is where you have negative feelings about someone else or think they are wrong in some way. Knowing that telling them about these thoughts would cause distress, you tell white lies.
We also tell white lies to reduce our own empathetic distress. When we value the happiness of others, telling them the truth can be uncomfortable. Women in particular, who tend to put more emphasis on relationships, are more likely to tell white lies.
We may also tell white lies to avoid harm to others, for example where we know a friend has told a relatively harmless lie to another person, we back up what they have said. We may also avoid telling harmful truths about them, for example not telling their manager that they left work early one day.
Sometimes such lies are not particularly white, but we frame them as such because our intentions are good, for example when we protect a friend who done something that is clearly wrong.
Telling white lies to avoid harm to oneself is even less white. We may tell ourselves that the lie is harmless but this may itself not be completely true.
Sometimes white lies are more about positive help than avoiding harm, for example where a doctor gives a patient a placebo pill that has no effect but tells the patient that this will cure them. We also tell positive white lies to people about how good they are or how wonderful they look with the simple aim that they feel better about themselves.
Positive lies are helpful when a person's beliefs are unhelpful, such as when their self-esteem is low. In this way, the lie helps reduce the self-harm that people may inflict on themselves, although it may do little to address the underlying issues.
There are often social rules about what may be discussed and what should be brushed under the carpet or otherwise avoided. Although unwritten, these are often quite clear, for example that a man should not criticize a woman's appearance, and certainly not in front of other people.
Different cultures can have very different rules about lying and rule-following, for example Trompenaars' notion of universalism vs. particularism.
Breaking social norms leads to social punishment, which can range from open criticism to outright ostracization. These are fearsome enough for many to choose white lies over such treatment.
Within groups, effects such as groupthink can make telling of lies to sustain social harmony more important than telling the truth, even if the net result is greater harm.
We often tell white lies to ingratiate ourselves to others, building our relationship with them. Even when I tell white lies to or about you and you know that I am doing this to protect you, you will probably still be grateful, trust me more and feel obliged to help me in return.
Sometimes we tell what we believe are white lies in order to put off the discomfort or harm that will result in telling the whole truth. The time value of lying adds a whole new dimension to the decision whether to lie or not and many people prioritize short-term benefits of lies over longer-term benefits of truth.
What we call 'white lies' can be purely for the benefit of the liar. If the person views the lie as harmless, causing no distress or problem to others, then they may consider lying to protect themselves to be a reasonable option. Such motivations are often fear-based.
A common form of fear-based self-protection is where we believe that the other person may become angry if we tell them the truth, and that they may then take their anger out on us or on those we care about.
In practice, almost all white lies have some personal benefit, even if it is just avoiding one's own embarrassment.
White lies are often, if we could admit it, a key tool in sustaining our sense of self. In order to maintain a self-concept that is acceptable we tell many little lies (and perhaps some big ones). Most of all, we tell these to ourselves, although of course we also have to live the lies in our external lives.
There are benefits to telling the truth and benefits to telling lies. Whenever we are faced such a choice we do a bit of mental algebra, balancing the benefits of truth and lies before we decide which to use and what exactly to say.
The equation we use for this may have different weightings for different people (including ourselves). Altruistic white lies will weight personal benefit lower and benefit to others (especially vulnerable people) higher.
The impact of white lies
When we believe lying is wrong, then even telling white can cause the inner discomfort of cognitive dissonance. To handle this tension, we tend to justify our actions, telling ourselves a story of how the white lie was the right thing to do.
Like Pinocchio, we may also need to tell further lies to support and sustain the original white lie. What was once a simple and well-meaning lie can hence turn into a massive cover-up as small lies lead to bigger ones and so on.
A further effect of the dissonance of lying is that we may even change our beliefs as we start to think that our lies may, after all, be true, at least on some level. Good liars do this all the time, believing (at least in the moment) that their obvious lies are actual truths. The rest of us do not fully escape this effect and too many white lies can make us more and more deceptive.
Discovering the truth
When a person who has been told a white lie discovers the truth, they may change their view of the liar to the extent that the relationship is changed.
If they were seeking honesty, they may view the liar negatively, being angry at the evaluation of themselves as unable to accept the truth, or seeing the liar as a coward whose purpose is more driven by self-protection.
If they would have found the truth difficult, then they may appreciate the white lie as being based in concern for them.
A possibly difficult conversation may then follow, in which the truth and reasons for the white lie are discussed. Alternatively, the person lied to may perpetuate the lie or tell white lies of their own to avoid further distress or harm.
Many other changes can occur in the relationship when white lies are told, for example the liar may come to resent the other person, particularly if they feel an obligation to tell white lies on a regular basis.
The lack of truth can easily lead to a lack of trust and without sufficient trust relationships may break down. With sufficient trust, white lies are less necessary and so it can be important to work hard to increase trust at least for this purpose.
On the other hand, if we reduce dissonance by believing the lie, we may become more concerned for the other person and so the relationship can improve. How the relationship changes hence depends on both the people and the situation.
Relationship change must also be considered in terms of if the white lie was not told. Almost by definition it would seem the relationship would deteriorate if the white liar told nothing but the truth of what they think, know and feel.
Detecting white lies
So how do you know when other people are telling white lies? Much the same as other ways of detecting lies. In particular, look for non-verbal as well as verbal signals.
The person telling white lies does not want to be detected and may well display some anxiety. They may also show the wider range of deceptive body language signals, such as holding oneself still and watching for signs of detection by staring at the face of the other person.
White lies may also be detected in how the person speaks and can indicate the level of the lie. As mentioned above, a clear lie may lead to the person exaggerating and emphasizing the truth, while a softened truth will include qualifiers such as 'partly', 'sometimes', and so on.
You probably cannot avoid using white lies yourself, but do reflect on their necessity before using them as well as the possible consequences. If you must use them, then keep them simple and avoid elaboration or exaggeration.
Sometimes you can usefully tell white lies in a way that the other person realizes that you are not telling the whole truth in order to help them. In this way you can gain their confidence and trust and perhaps persuade them on other matters.
Watch for white lies from others, especially if you are ready and willing to hear the truth. Sometimes people will try to protect you when knowing what they really think is a far better option. Being able to take harsh truths is a good sign of character and can lead to improved levels of trust.
Argo, J.J. and Shiv, B. (2012). Are White Lies as Innocuous as We Think? Journal of Consumer Research, 38, 6, 1093-1102
Bryant, E. (2008). Real Lies, White Lies and Gray Lies: Towards a Typology of Deception, Kaleidoscope: A Graduate Journal of Qualitative Communication Research, Vol 7, Fall 2008, 23-48
Camden, C, Motley, M., and Wilson, A. (1984). White lies in interpersonal
communication: A taxonomy and preliminary investigation of social motivations.
Western Journal of Speech Communication, 48, 309-325
Jones, E.E. (1964). Ingratiation: A Social Psychological Analysis, New York: Irvington.
Mazar, N., Amir, O. and Ariely, D. (2008), The Dishonesty of Honest People: A Theory of Self-Concept Maintenance, Journal of Marketing Research, 45 (December), 633–44.
Turner, R., Edgley, C, and Olmstead, G. (1975). Information control in conversations: Honesty is not always the best policy. Kansas Journal of Sociology, 11, 69-89.
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