You say a new haircut looks nice even though you don't like it. Or maybe you tell your team you've started on your project when you're not even close. Those types of "white" lies are supposed to do some good, but a new psychology study suggests these kinds of fibs should come with a big "beware" sign.
In a study from the University of California, San Diego, researchers had individuals play an economics game on a computer. Players received true or false "tips" that affected the outcome of the game. If the best option was debatable instead of obvious, such as getting a smaller amount of cash right away instead of a bigger payoff later, players tended to see the tippers who had lied as being less moral. Players also weren't as satisfied with the outcome of the game, even if they got the result they wanted.
Co-author of the study, Ph.D. candidate Matthew Lupoli, explained the results to Psychology Today, saying, "People seem to feel they have a right to the truth, and that by taking that away, you diminish their ability to act freely."
It all ties back to the concept of fairness, which our brains actually are hardwired to respond to. We simply want the same chance and opportunity as the next person, to be able to defend ourselves. We struggle to feel good about being on the receiving end of a white lie because the power the liar exerts as they fib challenges our belief that we're on the level playing field. We idealize that level playing field because it makes us feel more secure and worthwhile. Who are they, we rationalize about the liar, to make decisions for us? Who gave them the authority to dictate what we can and can't know? And how dare they make us feel foolish, even if it's just for a moment?
Do we take the liar's intentions into account? Yeah. But along the way, we still have to ask ourselves if a person who is willing to lie to us really has our best interests at heart. After all, isn't it in our best interests to be able to enjoy autonomy, to speak and act for ourselves? And don't we respect and trust others more when they give that power and independence to us?
And that's the real danger, what makes telling white lies such a black habit. Every time you tell a white lie, you force the person you lie to to reevaluate just how trustworthy--or not--you really are. Maybe they'll forgive you. This time. Maybe even next. But lie over and over again and the person you're untruthful to might accept you've crossed over from the occasional fib to an intentional, abusive attempt at gaslighting. And then maybe you won't get forgiveness anymore. And if that happens, you might sacrifice the very relationships that mean everything to you.