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Study: Little White Lies Keep Relationships Strong

Turns out, fibbing to protect a coworker's feelings might not be such a bad idea.
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Honesty in relationships is a very good thing. Lies--whether in your personal life or the workplace--chip away at your sense of trust. But according to new research by Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist at Oxford University, it depends on the type of lie. 

Lying to get your way? Bad idea. But telling a little white lie to spare someone's feelings? Not so terrible. In fact, it may even serve as the glue bonding you together with your friends and coworkers.   

Antisocial lying, the kind that tries to cover up a misdeed, is destructive, weakening bonds and driving people apart. And of course, when someone's an out-and-out liar, it's hard to win that trust back.  

On the other hand, lies told to protect someone's feelings are pro-social, meaning they help people strengthen their bonds. Yes, complimenting your boss's ugly shoes is insincere, but at least you mean well. And therein lies the difference: When you lie to protect someone, it's because you want to stay close, the research concludes. When you don't, you're just protecting yourself.  

To see how these two types of lies affect relationships, Dunbar and a group of researchers with the Aalto University School of Science in Finland devised a complex mathematical model. The model showed how anti-social lies erode bonds over time and how pro-social lies help create stronger bonds in a network.  

This model may soon be used to help psychologists track lying online, where people click "Like" on Facebook or voice support when they don't mean to. Often, it's meant to encourage support, but other times it's just out of obligation. 

What do you think: Do white lies serve a social function in the office?

Last updated: Jul 25, 2014

JILL KRASNY | Staff Writer

Jill Krasny is a staff writer for Inc. magazine, where she covers the intersection of entertainment and startups. Prior to Inc., she was a writer for MTV and Esquire and an editor at TheStreet. She is a graduate of the University of Southern California with a degree in communication. She lives in New York City.




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