When Is It (Not) OK To Lie?

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Psychologist Rob Dobrenski says if telling the truth only serves to alleviate the liar, perhaps it’s better to keep it a secret.

“Honesty is the best policy” is an ideology preached by many (although practiced by few, as research suggests that people lie, on average, one time per day). The reason for this is often obvious: Revealing the truth can lead to retribution. Misleading the government on your taxes brings about fines, telling your friends you’d rather stay in than go out for an evening with them can lead to criticism or anger, and betraying a lover only to come clean could be the end of the relationship. And while it’s certainly understandable why people lie, note that it’s almost invariably self-serving: You (the liar) stand to gain with the deception.

Some theorists argue that all lying is inherently narcissistic, even when people claim they are doing so to protect the feelings of another. Their position—a cogent one at that—is that you are deciding for another person what he needs to know about his world. You are making an assumption that you know better than him about what is best for him. And while there may be times this is true, we know the inherent dangers of assumptions.

So if telling another person the truth could be damaging, but lying is inherently self-serving, is it ever OK to lie?

That’s not for me to decide for you. However, I can direct you to two specific cognitive processes that people engage in that are inherently awful reasons for lying. Let’s consider an example where Person A has a one-night affair and is unsure whether or not to tell the partner, Person B. Here are the two worst reasons to lie that people mistakenly embrace:

1) The False Consensus Bias

This is a simple but powerful cognitive error: “I would (or would not) want to know, therefore that is what Person B would want.” Put more poetically, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Wrong. People inherently believe that their views are shared by the majority and often act on that premise. And while we are sometimes correct in that assumption, we are using the wrong thought process to get there. Simply placing your own desires onto another person is a poor way of intuiting what could be best for him or her.

2) Who stands to gain by the lie?

This is an even more insidious trap. Person A often reveals the truth under the guise of altruism or respect but, in reality, he or she is doing it to relieve his or her own guilt. People often fail to recognize that when they “get things off of their chest,” they often feel better, but they are transferring their pain onto the person who is hearing the words. This leads to a double kick in the teeth: I’ve done something awful to you and I’m going to ask you to help me feel better about it. Guilt is an incredibly powerful emotion that most of us will do a lot to eradicate, and it’s particularly easy to do it when you believe that it’s “the right thing to do.” But simply believing that doesn’t make it so. It’s only the evolved person who ponders the question: Who benefits most from the truth and who will suffer because of it?

Please note that this is not a judgment on whether or not one should be truthful in all of their daily interactions, from the more benign (e.g., should I tell her she looks awful in that dress?) to the more powerful (do I reveal that I cheated?). Rather, this is a call for you to consider your motives for honesty versus deception. In many cases the mechanisms are, in fact, more important than the decision. Without fully grasping why we do what we do, we can’t ever be complete.

Give that some thought the next time you’re immediately jumping at the chance to either spill the beans or bite your tongue. It might change your decision-making in a much healthier direction.

Rob Dobrenski, Ph.D. is a licensed Psychologist and the author of the book “Crazy: Notes on and off the Couch.” Visit him at his website, ShrinkTalk.Net, or on Twitter. He lives and works in New York City.

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