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Is a 'little white lie' OK? Here are 8 ways to know, experts say

Compassionate people are more likely to indulge in little white lies, often intended to smooth out common social interactions—but there's a point at which these "prosocial lies" can do more harm than good, according to new research in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.  

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Study details

Researchers from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) as well as the Queen Mary University of London performed three studies in which they examined whether feelings of compassion influenced whether participants told one of two types of prosocial lies: those intended to prevent emotional harm, and those intended to encourage positive outcomes for others.

For each study, researchers told the participants they would be paired up with partners and asked to judge essays written by their partners. In reality, however, the participants were all given the same essay—written by the researchers—and asked to provide their opinion.

In the first study, after they had read the essay and shared their thoughts, half of participants were told their partner recently had lost a family member, while the other half were told innocuous details about the writer's recent experience while shopping. The researchers then asked the participants to reevaluate the essay and informed them that their evaluation would be shared with the writer.   

In the second study, researchers gave a new set of participants a test to measure their level of compassion, then asked them to first evaluate the essay privately and then do so again with the intent to share their remarks with the writer.

In the third study, the participants again were divided into two groups. One of the groups viewed emotionally charged images, including pictures of homeless people, while the second group viewed more innocuous images, such as pictures of silverware. Both groups then looked at a screen filled with dots and afterwards were asked about how the dots were placed. According to the Journal, the researchers provided participants with motivation to lie about how the dots were placed by telling participants that they would be given money to give to charity, and that they would get more money if they said there were more dots on the right side of the screen than the left.


The three studies had the same conclusion: "People who feel compassionate are lying more," Matthew Lupoli, a doctoral candidate in management at UCSD 

Specifically, the researchers found that participants in the first study who were primed to feel compassionate inflated their feedback on the essays, as were participants in the second study who demonstrated more individual traits of compassion on the compassion test. And in the third study, the researchers found that participants who were primed to feel compassionate were more likely than those who were not to lie so as to increase the amount of money they could give to charity.

According to the researchers, when asked why they inflated ratings on the essays they read, participants said that they didn't want to hurt the writer's feelings. But the researchers also noted that the findings "buil[d] on work highlighting the potentially harmful effects of compassion."

When are white lies appropriate?

While prosocial lies may be well-intentioned, they can be harmful, experts said. "If I tell you that I enjoyed your presentation I may give you false confidence," Maurice Schweitzer, a professor of operations and information management at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business, said. "If you subsequently volunteer to give that presentation again or advocate for key ideas in the presentation guided by my lie, you may be much worse off."

Experts gave eight guidelines to know when a white lie is appropriate and when it isn't.

  1. When in doubt, be kind. According to Schweitzer, it's better to tell a well-intentioned lie if there are no long-term consequences—don't use honesty as an excuse to be cruel or selfish.

  2. Think about timing. There's no need to be brutally honest at a time when the person involved is not able to change the situation, Schweitzer said.

  3. It's OK to provide less-than-honest reassurance. White lies are appropriate, Schweitzer said, when someone is seeking reassurance more than a statement of fact, such as when someone asks, "Do I look bad in this dress?" or "Did I make a fool out of myself at the party?"

  4. Ask the person for his or her preference on white lies. Directly ask the person seeking your input whether he or she prefers the truth, Schweitzer said. Some people prefer to be told the truth at all times—but it's best to ask this question well in advance of a potential white-lie situation 

  5. Assess your motivations. "Be aware of what role your selfish motivation plays," Sean Horan, associate professor of communication at Texas State University, said. Are you trying to make the person feel better, or are you hoping he or she will give you something in return?

  6. Don't lie if the person is likely to find out the truth. "There's nothing worse than you saying 'Oh yeah, I love your proposal' then four others on the team at work give constructive criticism with authentic feedback that takes the document up a notch," Shawne Duperon, a communications consultant in Detroit, said.

  7. Be truthful if you want someone to change. "It's better not to tell a white lie if you're paying too high a price for it in the relationship or you believe the target will pay too high a price," Joshua Coleman, a psychologist and senior fellow at the Council on Contemporary Families, said. Coleman said if there's a real issue, it's better to address the problem directly than try to avoid embarrassment or an argument.

  8. Remember the Golden Rule. "Ask yourself if you'd like to be told the same lie," William Doherty, a professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota, said. "A lie is a form of power over someone—it is deceiving the other person in some way—and it can be useful to ask oneself if you would want someone else to deceive you in the same situation" (Bernstein, Wall Street Journal, 6/5; Lupoli et al., Journal of Experimental Psychology, 5/11).

How to give your team the feedback they need to improve

If managers want to drive their team’s performance, they need to give staff timely, actionable feedback. To accomplish this, many companies encourage managers to have monthly check-ins with each of their employees. However, managers in health care typically don’t have the bandwidth to have regular one-on-ones with all of their direct reports, since they may have 40 or more team members.

Join us on July 26 to learn a health care-specific approach to ensuring employees receive the feedback they need outside of the annual review—without overloading managers. We’ll discuss how to help managers have high-quality, periodic check-ins with their staff and give you guidance on reinforcing the importance of check-ins.

Register for the Webconference







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