When little white lies cause big hurt

Alice G. Walton | Oct 17, 2018

Most people have, at one point or another, told a well-intentioned lie to spare another’s feelings or to bolster someone’s confidence. But even lies that are intended to serve the greater good can backfire, inciting suspicion about the liar’s intentions and morality, according to Deakin University’s Matthew Lupoli, Chicago Booth’s Emma Levine, and Bocconi University’s Adam Eric Greenberg

The researchers set out to better understand a previously undefined variety of lie, which they dub “paternalistic.” In this type of lie, the deceiver makes a judgment call about the lie’s potential benefit for the recipient. An oncologist who doesn’t actually know a patient’s wishes regarding candor might tell a paternalistic lie by sugarcoating the prognosis, for example. Because of the assumption on the part of the liar, the lie is considered paternalistic rather than unequivocally prosocial—the lie would be the latter if it were known to align with the patient’s preferences. In this example, the doctor’s lie would be unequivocally prosocial only if the patient had previously made clear that the doctor should soften the blow of any unpleasant developments. 

Lupoli, Levine, and Greenberg ran a series of experiments in which participants played an experimental game, called a deception game. In this type of game, one player (the sender) has the opportunity to lie to another player (the receiver) in order to achieve a certain outcome for the receiver. In some conditions of the researchers’ study, the senders had an opportunity to tell a paternalistic lie, meaning they had to make an assumption about what type of monetary reward would most benefit the receivers. For example, if a sender told the truth about an unrelated event, such as the outcome of a coin toss, the receiver earned a $10 lottery ticket for that day. If the sender lied, the receiver earned a $30 lottery ticket in three months.

This, says Levine, models a situation in which communicators have to make assumptions about what will most benefit the recipients of their statements—an immediate benefit now or a bigger benefit in the future. A communicator might have to decide whether to give false praise, which provides an immediate benefit, or candid criticism, which is often costly in the near term but beneficial in the long run. 

The researchers also included conditions in which the sender had the opportunity to tell an unequivocally prosocial lie, which would clearly benefit the receiver. For example, the sender could lie to earn the receiver two tickets, rather than one, to the $10 lottery. In this situation, no subjective judgment is required because two tickets are clearly preferable to one. 

The participants who received paternalistic lies reacted negatively on several levels. They viewed the liars as significantly less moral than those who told the truth, as well as less moral than those who told unequivocally prosocial lies. The researchers also find that paternalistic lies adversely affected recipients’ emotional states and their satisfaction with the outcomes of the lies, and caused them to punish the liars. 

The recipients of paternalistic lies tended to assume that the liars had bad intentions, the researchers say. Participants who were told paternalistic lies also tended to feel that the lies reduced their own autonomy, and that the liars generally misunderstood their true feelings and preferences. This was not the case for people told unequivocally prosocial lies.

When liars communicated their good intentions, it did not reliably reduce recipients’ negative feelings about them. For example, in one of a series of vignette studies, participants considered whether it was moral to falsely praise a colleague’s presentation. They deemed it less moral to do so if the colleague hadn’t expressed a preference for comfort over candor than if she had. And belatedly saying “I only meant to help” didn’t improve the liar’s moral standing.

The findings extend to a variety of scenarios, from political to medical, and highlight that good intentions alone don’t justify lying; the lies’ recipients are sensitive to whether liars are acting based on assumptions or true insight into the preferences of the person they’re lying to. Unless you can be sure about another person’s preferences, it may be best to steer clear of even well-intended lies, the researchers conclude. If uncovered, paternalistic lies do more harm than good.