The Truth About Lies: Motives Matter


By Jamie C. Williamson, PhD

Is it ever ok to lie? 

Not all lies are unexpected.  Not all lies are unethical.  Not all lies hurt others.  In fact, sometimes lying is the right thing to do.

Sometimes.  But, not usually.  Especially in a close personal relationship grounded in trust, like marriage.

Lying is only one of many forms of deception, which occurs anytime you knowingly allow someone to believe something that is not true.

And, yes…lies of omission (intentionally withholding information) are deception, too.

But, intent is a key ingredient here.  Intent differentiates between a “hard-to-overlook” deception and an “easy-to-forgive” honest mistake.  If you provide inaccurate or false information that you believed to be true, you did not lie. And, most people get that.

The motive behind the deception also influences how most people evaluate a particular deceptive act, with some motives being generally expected, some easily forgiven, and others being harshly judged.

The table below borrows from extant deception research (including my own) to illustrate that Motives for Deception fall along a continuum from Pro-Social to Anti-Social and are associated with specific goals and behaviors.

Deception designed to Benefit Others is engrained in western culture and part of our daily interactions. Most of us learned early in life that failure to engage in these pro-social actions is often considered impolite, unnecessarily hurtful, or disloyal.  We compliment our host, even if we didn’t care for the meal. We praise a child’s painting even though we can’t really identify the subject. We equivocate when a friend asks if we like her new hair style. And — although we may not substitute a lie for the truth, most of us willingly withhold information that might embarrass a dear friend, trusted colleague, and, especially our spouse.  There are certain stories we just don’t tell in order to help those we care about save face.

Similarly, people use Self-Enhancement Deception as a natural way to present their best self and manage the impression others have of them. Most of the time these self-enhancement strategies go unnoticed or, if found out, are easily forgiven because they are so commonly used by us all. We talk about our successes, but omit or minimize our failures. We blame the traffic for making us late, rather than say we overslept.  And, we pretend to know more than we do about wine, or the market, or our job – and then go study up.  Of course, when taken to the extreme of an out-right lie on a resume, routine fabricated excuses, or constant boasting, even these relatively harmless attempts to make yourself look good can backfire.

Self-Protective Deception crosses further into anti-social territory because it involves selfishness, and often ends up hurting others.  As such, depending on the issue and relationship involved, this type of defense mechanism can engender anger, create conflict, and reflect poorly on the deceiver’s character.

Self-Protective Deception, if discovered, has less of a negative impact on casual relationships than it does on long-term relationships and marriage because (a) close personal relationships are characterized by commitment and trust and (b) breaking that trust is a major violation of expectations.  Still, the extent of the negative impact of Self-Protective Deception depends on the importance of the issues, as well.  Saying you had a salad for lunch, when you really had a cheeseburger is much different than saying you were working late, when you really went to a bar with a mixed-gender set of co-workers.  Both will affect your partner’s perception of you, but the self-protective lie that has the potential to also hurt others is considered more unethical and more antisocial than the lie that doesn’t threaten others. And, naturally, when discovered, a Self-Protective Lie about an important topic erodes trust in a long-term relationship and also engenders hurt and anger, creates conflict, and erodes the relationship, as well.

Spouses may use Self-Protective Deception to protect their marriage relationship.  For example, a wife might lie about a regrettable, one-time infidelity to protect herself but also to maintain and protect her marriage relationship (and even her spouse).   If discovered, the wife has two problems:  She engaged in infidelity and then lied about it.  Explaining that she lied to “protect the relationship” won’t help much to mitigate the impact of these transgressions.

Deception focused on Harming Others can involve deliberately lying to harm someone’s reputation, to obstruct a colleague’s ability to succeed at work, or to interfere with a rival’s desire to start and maintain a relationship. These lies are considered anti-social and unethical. The most egregious and harshly judged lies, however, are those told to by people who deliberately hurt others by trying to deflect attention from themselves or shift blame from themselves to another, innocent person.

Thankfully, deception focused on harming others is relatively uncommon in satisfying, long-term relationships like marriage, because these healthy relationships are typically characterized by good will, positive regard, and cooperation, despite the occasional (and perfectly normal) conflict.

During relational distress, however, couples often exaggerate (or falsely accuse) each other of wrongdoing to gain the loyalty of their family and mutual friends.  And, worse yet, divorcing parents may lie about each other to gain the loyalty of their children.

Bottom line:  Everybody lies. And everybody knows it.  And, in certain situations, certain kinds of deception are considered pro-social, acceptable, and even desired.

But, before you lie to anyone about anything, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Do you have your partner’s best interest at heart? Are you trying to help someone save face? Or trying too hard to make yourself look good?
  2. Will the deception help both you and your partner, or is it a selfish lie?
  3. What are the possible repercussions of your lie? If your lie is discovered (and the big ones usually are), how will it affect your partner’s feelings? Your relationship? Your own credibility? Your own reputation? The professional and personal well being of the subject of your lie?
  4. Could there be unintended consequences of your lie? Remember, if you lie to gain the loyalty of your children, you may hurt your former spouse, but you also deny your children a loving relationship with their other parent.
  5. How hard will it be to maintain the lie? If you exaggerate when talking to strangers on the plane, that’s one thing.  You’ll never see them again.  But, when you lie to your co-worker, close friend, and especially your spouse, you will have to continue lying over and over again.
  6. How will the lie change you? If you tell polite, prosocial lies you’ll probably feel good about yourself and others will, too. If you deceive someone you love about an issue that is important to your relationship and you have to keep telling more lies to cover-up the first ones, you may become unrecognizable, even to yourself.

Once you’ve thought through these questions, I suspect you’ll be able to formulate your own answer to the question “Is it ever ok to lie?”

If you’re reading this post after a lie has already impacted your relationship, try sharing it with your partner to start a conversation (not a series of accusations) about motives.  The Motives for Deception grid will help you understand each other and separate small transgressions from big ones.  Most couples can keep small transgressions in perspective.   The big transgressions require more sincere regret, genuine forgiveness, a new relationship map, and a sincere effort to “work it out”.

Let me know if I can help.

You’ll find Dr. Jamie C. Williamson at Amity Mediation Workshop, where we do Marriage Mediation designed to help couples find solutions and reach agreements that re-establish trust.