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White lies and black lies: What they have in common and how they differ

Steinmetz, J. ORCID: 0000-0003-3299-4858 & Posten, A-C. (2018). White lies and black lies: What they have in common and how they differ. InMind Magazine, 37,


In everyday life, people sometimes tell “black lies”, and sometimes “white lies”. For both types of lies (or deceptioni), the deceiver communicates misleading information to another person or group namely the deceived [1]. However, a large difference exists between black lies and white lies: With black lies, the deceiver tries to gain something at the cost of the deceived. In other words, the deceiver exploits the deceived out of self-interest. A classic example is the notorious used car dealer, who lies to customers about the state of the cars that are for sale. Regarding white lies, the picture looks different: The deceiver lies to please the deceived by using affiliative deception. For example, most of us have told a friend that their new hair-cut looks great to please and not irritate the friend, while secretly disliking the hair-cut. Such deception out of affiliative motives means to lie in order to deepen a relationship, or to please the deceived by saying what they would presumably like to hear.

Obviously, the deception in the two examples above stems from very different motives, and therefore is usually met with condemnation in case of black lies, versus affiliation in case of white lies. But are white lies thus desirable and without harm? In this article, we highlight that white lies can cause harm precisely because people use them to foster relationships and affiliation. More specifically, when people want to affiliate with others, they tend to agree with all questions and statements of others. Thereby, affiliation biases response behavior, even on neutral questions and even when nothing can be gained from the response. Such a response bias can distort responses to health surveys, public policy questionnaires, or eyewitness interrogations; in other words, white lies can cause harm by undermining the effectiveness of public policy or by incriminating innocent others. To support this argument, we first review the underlying motives of back lies versus white lies, and then illustrate how research on the prevention of black lies might also be used to prevent the negative consequences of white lies.

Publication Type: Article
Additional Information: This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BF Psychology
Departments: Bayes Business School > Management
Text - Published Version
Available under License Creative Commons: Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0.

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