The earliest time when the term white lies was used was in 1741 in a British publication. The article described the difference between what was considered black lies and white lies. Black lies were thought to be malicious while white lies were akin to fibs with no intent to harm. White was associated with purity while black was associated with evil.
The concept of what constitutes a lie has become a matter of national discussion. As a society, research has shown that 95 percent of us lie at least once per week. Fortunately, most of those lies would be considered white lies, not meant to harm. In fact, some white lies may be considered to avoid harm to the person being lied to.
When do people tell white lies? Research has shown several occasions:
- Sometimes white lies are used to simplify overly complicated issues
- Sometimes white lies may be used to avoid an unpleasant truth
- Sometimes white likes may be used to avoid an awkward situation
There are motivations for telling white lies that encourage us to tell them.
- Tact – we want to keep people from being harmed by what would be the truth
- Self-protection – we want to protect our own ego or self-image
- Power Protection – we don’t want to let a person in power know something that could affect their perception of us
- Harmony – we want to maintain good relationships with others
When do white lies cross the line to black lies? These are several indicators:
- Intent – black lies are meant to deceive or harm
- Consequence – the potential outcome of the deception can be harmful to others
- Benefit –black lies are designed to benefit the teller of the lie
- Degree – black lies are actually untrue rather than just a bending of the truth
- Moral Objection – black lies are morally wrong
The distinction between white lies and black lies seems fairly clear from the above contrasts. What seems to be changing in our society is our tolerance for black lies. Misinformation on social media has become a threat to our democracy. Those who repeatedly tell lies seem to face no consequences in the public sphere. There also seems to be a growing industry devoted to selling lies as the truth. Have lies become another version of 50 shades of gray?
* * *
“Little white lies are told by humans all the time. Indeed, lying is often how we get through each day in a happy little bubble. We spend time and energy rationalizing our own behaviors, beliefs, and decision-making processes.” – Barry Ritholtz (equities analyst)