Little White Lies – Why? At What Cost?

Good at lying for good reason.

Apparently, on average, people tell 1 or 2 lies a day, and get lied to 10 to 200 times on the same period. (Does that mean we listen far more often than we talk? Or that we surround ourselves with, or are subjected to, liars? Or does it mostly mean that we read posts on social media?)

And lying isn’t the same as integrity. For example, if someone was going to harm an innocent and defenceless person or animal, if they asked you were the person or animal was, would you tell them? Of course not. Integrity must win the day.

Another test for a lie is wilfulness – was the lie a lie, or a mistruth? Was it intended to deceive, or did it reflect an error in fact or perception – and for who? All truths are subjective, some are probably objective, and most change with knowledge, time or context. One of the most useful learnings for me when studying this area at university was, “Hold your truths lightly”. I liked how those words supported the happy coexistence of wisdom, openness, curiosity, humility and tolerance. So, while a mistruth can be a lie, it doesn’t have to be, and our responses might be less judgemental for that.

Other lies are intentional. Especially, we’ve all had experiences, whether we’ve done it to someone else, or someone else has done it to us, where we tell a little white lie to protect feelings (of ourselves or the other person) or the relationship. Why tell the truth if the truth is more likely to cause distress or conflict?

Those things are understandable. We might not like to admit it, but we’re much more motivated toward preserving values and relationships, and avoiding upset and conflict, than we are to simply not bend the truth a little. Any parent knows children learn how to lie as part of developing their “social survival” skillset from an early age, a long time before brain development and memory systems are in any way mature. Effectively, the ability to lie is hard-wired, so, while we may not be comfortable, convincing or skilled, we’re probably well-practiced.

Good at lying for a bad reason

The problem comes when the lying is to take advantage of others – politicians, advertisers, pundits and social media trolls or bots are great at this. Why? Well, there are two main reasons:

  • They have more to gain from lying than by telling the truth;
  • They have less to lose by lying than by telling the truth;

OK, it’s one main reason split into two parts. No, that statement about being two reasons wasn’t a lie, it’s simply a different way of expressing the same thing. Remember what we said about subjectivity, tolerance and holding onto truths (or perceptions) lightly?

As a neural learning process, experiences of ethically-bereft or compromised liars have shown them that the rewards or avoided losses of lying outweigh violations to values, which, through self-talk or social reinforcement, can become reshaped to fit the behaviour. Yes, people justify lying to themselves because the ethical dilemma it creates cannot easily go unresolved – so they resolve it by adapting the ethic, rather than the behaviour.

There is also the problem of conflicting ethics, where deep-seated belief systems compete for primacy, with one carrying the day and the other being compromised. Over time, with practice, people learn to more comfortably become unethical or ethically compromised, and with the intrinsic penalty of a distressed conscience reduced, net motivation for lying increases, despite the chronic harm to personal wellbeing that comes with continued ethical violations, known as a neural “Inconsistency” (also remember the motivational value of immediacy).


Bad at lying for a bad reason

A recent experience reminded me that, despite some justification in considering the feelings of others, most “little white lies” are inherently selfish and inherently harmful. For example:

  • The manager who doesn’t talk about inadequate performance or behaviour is likely to be more worried about their own feelings, popularity and perceptions of approval from others than what is best for the individual concerned. How can the underperforming employee make changes and improve without honest guidance? What does the future hold for that employee if that conversation doesn’t occur? What about their colleagues, for the team and for their customers?
  • The employee who isn’t honest about their mistakes, worries or weaknesses now has more worries – the cause of the worry and the worry of the deception! The mistake or weakness doesn’t go away because it is ignored or concealed. Rather, it is compounded. What does it say about management practice and workgroup culture if an employee feels they can’t safely speak honestly about these things? What does it say about the fears and/or character of the employee that they didn’t risk honesty? What are the likely consequences?

The inconsistency created by lying at work, perhaps felt as regret, shame, butterflies in the stomach, emotional turmoil, nervousness or general distress, impairs the ability of an employee to experience fulfilment and wellbeing. It also burdens them with the stress that comes with maintaining the lie if, when or how it might come up at any time in the future. For these reasons, lying, for most people and at any level, reduces the capacity for optimal performance and the likelihood of optimal and rewarding employee engagement. Bluff and bluster are possible avoidance responses, but withdrawal, such as from people, responsibility, places, tasks, or the job itself, and fed by feelings of guilt, shame and vulnerability, seems more common.


Little White Lie of the Day

As an interviewer and therapist, I hear many lies a day, sometimes to promote, sometime to protect. I expect them, there’s “good” reasons for some of them, and it’s just part of my work that I don’t take personally or judge too harshly. But they don’t help practically or with trust or credibility.

However, a little white lie I was told recently was an insight into the integrity of the person involved – all the more so because the matter was unimportant. An article was due for delivery, but an email advising of a further 3-week delay arrived instead: the 3rd delay so far. When queried, the customer service representative replied, “I can only update you the information that I receive from XXXX. They are not forthcoming with these delays, I am continually chasing them for updates.”

I then called the supplier who, without delay in answering or accessing information, told me exactly when the shipment was due, why the delays had occurred, and even that he could see my order on the list. He was accurate, courteous, friendly and professional. He also told me that the customer service representative called that morning but hadn’t called or emailed in the weeks before that. He said he probably should have called her when he found out about the delay and apologised for not doing that.

Maybe the supplier was lying to me when saying the customer service representative had only contacted him that morning. But he seemed very transparent about anything else and he openly and comfortably apologised for not contacting her, so I have no reason to doubt him.

So that leaves me with her choosing quite deliberately to blame him, rather than simply saying that she made the mistake. In practical terms, it changes nothing whether she lies or not, or indeed whether she’d let me know a week or so earlier. Now, I know the CEO of that company (no, I’m not going to play politics or tell him about it), and I know that he is OK with people making mistakes if they admit to them and try to learn from them. But he’s not OK with his team being dishonest – which then talks about her personal fears, goals and/or character as motivation. Either way, I now feel that I can’t trust her.

Imagine if other customers have similar experiences – what does that do to the reputation of the business? What if her colleagues feel the same way – what does that do to her workplace status and relationships? How does she feel when she does this? Is it water off a duck’s back, or does she have some misgivings, as most of us would? How does that affect her fulfilment and wellbeing over time?



If you, or someone you know of, is in the habit of authoring “little white lies” it might be helpful to quietly think about a specific event:

  • Who gained or lost from the lie at the time? What about later?
  • Do you think it was mostly a self-defence-thing, or intended for deceitful gain?
  • Do you think, even though the purpose (automatic or deliberate) was enough to trigger that response at the time, that in the end it mattered that much?
  • What would have happened at that moment if the truth were told, perhaps with humility, tact and compassion? What would have been different later?
  • Do you feel little white lies are mostly self-justifying, or is there a cost to the conscience that can build up and weigh people down over time?
  • What scope does your preferred identity hold for integrity, for big lies and for little white lies? How do you want to see yourself? Does that thought motivate you?
  • How might you be able to interact with others around you so that they feel safer being more honest with you? What would that be like for both of you and your relationship?