Is it okay to tell a white lie?


Fact Box

  • Merriam-Webster defines a white lie as “a lie about a small or unimportant matter that someone tells to avoid hurting another person.”
  • Whereas white lies are told in the spirit of helping someone, black lies are when “the deceiver tries to gain something at the cost of the deceived. In other words, the deceiver exploits the deceived out of self-interest.”
  • A SimplyHired survey found that 98% of respondents admitted to telling white lies at work, with 60% of the lies dealing with calling out for the day (i.e., pretending to be sick or have an appointment).
  • Victoria Talwar, lead researcher on the development of lying in children at McGill University, found that children tend to tell more white lies as they get older, with 72% of 3-5 year-olds fibbing and 80% of 9-11 year-olds doing the same.
  • National Honesty Day is celebrated in the US on April 30th “to encourage honesty and straightforward communication in life.”

Andrew (No)

Telling small lies often leads to telling larger lies down the road. White lies may seem insignificant in the moment, but there is scientific evidence that engaging in communicating falsehoods desensitizes the amygdala, which is the part of the brain responsible for ethical behavior. Essentially, telling a few small lies could eventually change someone into a less honest person overall.

Often being direct with other people is better than skirting the issue with an untruth. If asked to go on a date with someone you are not interested in, it might be tempting to use a little white lie and claim to have plans already. However, this sends the message to the other person that you are, in fact, interested in dating, just unavailable at that time—which could motivate the other person to ask you out again in the future. In this example, telling a white lie actually leads the other person to believe the opposite of the lie's intent.

Lies and falsehoods, no matter how small, can damage one's integrity. It only takes being found out for a tiny lie to have one's record tarnished as a dishonest person. Lies can live online in perpetuity, and finding the truth is now very easy with internet searching. It's best to be honest and not risk one's reputation, professionally or personally.

White lies damage one's integrity, relationships with others, and can harm professional standings. Honesty truly is the best policy, even when it comes to seemingly insignificant white lies.

Bre (Yes)

White lies spare feelings and prevent injury or grief. It's often in the best interest of both parties to tell these untruths.

In emergency medical situations, patients and their families are told white lies to provide hope. Doctors reporting more favorable outcomes can be in patients' best interests, boosting positivity and motivating treatment, whereas losing hope can be detrimental. In devastating circumstances, reassurances are made, the truth of which doctors cannot know. Untruthful statements ease moments of despair, so grieving family members can find comfort.

Socially and culturally, white lies aren't just accepted; they're encouraged. Falsehoods have been used in harmless entertainment for centuries and stories embellished for effect. In the name of innocence and imagination, children are deliberately deceived by Santa Claus and other characters' existence. Lying to spare feelings is actually a social skill learned and demonstrated in young kids, whereby telling prosocial lies is linked to improved inhibitory control and working memory.

The truth is important, but it's far from the most important thing. When caring for children, it can be necessary to alter explanations for effectiveness and understanding. And with millions of Alzheimer's and dementia patients, 'therapeutic fibbing' is used regularly to provide reassurance where truth would only cause unnecessary harm.

Showing empathy by wanting to avoid unnecessarily hurting others is a positive quality. Giving favorable feedback on a mediocre gift, for instance, is a kindness. And as it's not uncommon for people to react poorly when given harsh negative feedback, padded language can preserve positive feelings and help others receive criticism. 

With the right intention, white lies are an essential tool of compassion.

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