The Fib Factor: Are White Lies Irresponsible?

May 20th, 2008 by Kathy McManus

Is it wrong to shade the truth to spare someone’s feelings?

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

Do these pants make me look fat? 

We all tell white lies, but when we do, are we being irresponsible? 

And when we tell white lies as parents—I’ll leave work early for your soccer game—are we harming our kids? 

“Don’t feel bad,” says psychologist Alan Hilfer. “We all tend to lie to our children on a regular basis.” Santa Claus. The Tooth Fairy. Those kinds of little white lies, which stoke kids’ imaginations and make for happy memories, are apparently pretty benign. 

In fact, our ability to tell white lies actually starts when we are young children and our parents and other adults coax us to spare the feelings of others—Tell grandma how much you love the book she sent you. 

According to Professor Victoria Talwar at McGill University, not only are junior’s white lies OK, they’re actually a positive developmental milestone that all children need to achieve. 

Such “pro-social” lying shows that kids have developed sympathy and empathy, which are important aspects of social communication, says Professor Talwar. Her revealing hidden-camera tests with children show that fibbing is part of normal brain development. 

So if lying starts as normal, when are white lies no longer white? Is the current political trend of “misspeaking” something less than lying? Is bluffing OK? White lies have no place on the reality game show Moment of Truth but wouldn’t one be preferable to admitting the truth on national television that you’d prefer to be married to someone other than your spouse? 

Tell us what you think: At what point do white lies start to yellow? Can lying ever be responsible? Do we need to go cold turkey on white lies and learn to value the truth?