This study explains when it is OK to tell a lie

Around the age of two, we become diverted by the concept of deception, though it often takes us a couple of years before we’ve worked out the fundamental mechanics. If a toddler wets the bed, it might occur to them to lie about it, but it would less likely occur to them to ensure that the lie they conceive is a convincing one. These are called primary lies; lies told to conceal transgressions without the executive function skills to adjust alibis according to the listener: “Spider-man peed in my bed then took off.” 

By four years old, we aren’t quite fluent in deceit, but we know enough to lie our way out of most elementary jams, permitting those receiving our lies aren’t keen on lengthening the investigation. “I spilled smelly water on my bed.”   It’s not until seven years old that we grow into our Rhoda phase, gaining the ability to look our parents in the eyes and say: Rover peed in my bed. He’s 11 and has an awful bladder. I think it’s about time we put him down.” These are called tertiary lies; lies that are mindful of known facts and designed with the consideration of potential follow-up questions. 

Once you become acutely aware of the power of reasoned mendacity, you’ll find yourself in a clearing, before two moral pathways,  pathways that are philosophically identified via the following normative ethical terms: Deontology and Utilitarianism. 


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One who employs a deontological estimation of lying believes that the act is morally wrong irrespective of its purpose and or consequences. Our ethical obligations are unconditional, and should never cow to our own purpose or objectives, upholding this duty is a categorical imperative. To borrow Kant’s illustration: Say your friend darkens your door with a plea for refuge, and you agree. A couple of minutes later a scruffy, jaundice eyed figure rings your bell, wielding a katana, requesting the very same friend you just promised to hide. If you were to tell this obvious skin-collector that your friend is not in your home, you are morally in the wrong according to deontology. Kant would go on to say that every outcome succeding your lie is on your conscience. Thus, if your lie confirmed your friend to be hiding in your neighbor’s yard, and the murderer ended up bumping into that friend, just before debraining him, you are the co-author of this outcome, and should feel guilty. 

Before exploring the contrary moral philosophy, I want to note that the contrast is not in the strictness that one observes moral principles, but in the defining of the term moral. Deontology locates the morality of an action in a series of rules that judge whether or not the action itself is right or wrong, whereas utilitarianism believes morality is the goal to enrich life by producing more good things, or more relevantly phrased: if a lie is premised by good consequences it is ethically permissible. If telling your friend that their objectively nauseating haircut looks good on them makes their day a little better, you are under no obligation to tell them the truth.  From where I sit there’s a third ethical consideration.  Are lies bad on principle? Is a lie justified if it promotes happiness? Or is lying a victimless crime so long as no one’s the wiser?

As it turns out evolution doesn’t think too meanly of the act itself, but on the aptitude of the falsifier. Early humans that understood the value of tactical deception, reaped the adaptional advantages. Over time this qualified the human mind to become better at telling and detecting lies, in the service of social climbing. Flashforward, several million years later,  where, in a ten-minute conversation the average person will lie around three times, sometimes to come across more likable, sometimes to belie a degree of competence and sometimes….well researchers found sometimes we lie with absolutely zero grails in mind. 

The sophistication of a lie is most often determined by the objectives funding it, but the compulsion is actually dictated by neurological factors. There’s an art and a science to self-deception. Pathological liars actually tend to have 25% more white matter and 14% less grey matter in their prefrontal cortex compared to that of a normal, non-habitual manipulator. This stands to reason, considering white matter is the part of the brain that makes connections between all of the things processed by grey matter;  bully to you, Mark Twain.

So if there is a pathology to lying and a biological supplication that we do so, are we innately dishonest?

Intuitive Honesty Versus Dishonesty: Meta-Analytic Evidence

A new paper that appeared in the July issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science was animated by the very question posed above. If honesty is intuitive to us, that means it takes a concentrated cognitive effort to lie. However, if lying is a survival mechanism imbedded into our psyche when we are panicked or perceive danger, it would take a concentrated cognitive effort, to tell the truth. Exactly which is the intuitive heuristic function? According to the newest report, the reflex is actually conditional. We are intuitively dishonest, so long as our duplicity does not yield an obvious victim.

The study’s co-author, Nils Köbis explains“For example, where lying earns the subject more money without causing another subject to lose anything – inducing people to rely on their intuition leads to more people lying (Meta-Analysis 1) and people lying more (Meta-Analysis 2). However, when dishonesty harms concrete others – for example, earning the subject more money at the expense of another subject earning less – no intuitive-dishonesty effect appears. This suggests that the social heuristic to ‘do no harm’ to the victim might have canceled out the intuitive selfish appeal of dishonesty.”

Köbis went on to illuminate a parallel truth about how ambiguity seems to pardon deeds that would otherwise be judged as immoral; like stealing a muffin from a mom and pop shop as opposed to a Dunkin Donuts-the latter’s victim is much more ambiguous, permitting room for rationalization. Excusing instances, of neurological abnormalities, most of us bear the cognitive faculties to determine the agency of our deceit. I think it’s just as naive to say that if lies have their function the act itself is not amoral as it is to say, the act should not be tolerated under any circumstances.

One of the chief rewards of a fully developed mammalian conscience is the liberty to survey things on a case by case basis. In any given situation, we permit a clash of virtues. In some instances, it is morally sound to champion the virtue of honesty at compassion’s expense: I don’t want to hurt your feelings but you’re an abrasive, often smelly alcoholic. Of course, sometimes the contrary is true, like telling your 97-year-old grandmother that her flavorless, concrete excuses for an oatmeal cookie, are the best part of your week. But even this justification comes with a price. A meaningful relationship is defined by trust: I trust you to tell me when I get a lousy haircut or make dry, faux-edible oatmeal cookies, and you trust me not to mistake your honesty for cruelty.