Is honesty really the best policy?
Imagine you tell a simple white lie. Something so small, it has to be harmless… right? It’s not like they’re ever going to find out anyway. Except suddenly, you start to view your interactions through a different lens, one tainted with suspicion. Could this person be lying to me too? Telling a lie is like pushing a single domino; it starts a chain reaction of doubt, making you question everyone else’s sincerity. Your ‘innocent’ white lie threatens the foundation of trust necessary to build and maintain social connection. Maybe these lies aren’t so innocent after all.
Humans, as social beings, instinctively seek out social connections and relationships. Social connections are often forged through disclosing personal information in conversations. Self-disclosure both requires and endangers trust, as it creates a stage for trust to be violated. Generally, people admit to being dishonest once or twice each day. While decades of research has focused on people's ability to detect these lies, and the behavioral cues that might give liars away (think: Pinnochio's nose), considerably less work has examined the social consequences of deception – particularly for lies that go undetected. Our research was the first to examine how the act of telling lies is related to the subjective sense of social isolation – that is, loneliness.
Loneliness is something many can relate to, and as such, understanding how it may emerge is crucial. While it might seem obvious that discovering that you’ve been duped would lead to an erosion of trust and social connection, it is less obvious why telling a lie would lead to the same outcome. Well, when people tell lies, they often perceive their conversation partners as less honest as a reflection of their own behaviour, rather than any actual dishonesty from their partner. The liar’s own acts of deception trigger suspicion and a sense of distrust in the people they interact with (i.e., deceiver’s distrust), hindering their ability to establish social connections.
We conducted three studies addressing lying, trustworthiness, and social connection in dyadic conversations. In our first study, we found that in 25-minute free flowing conversations between two strangers on Zoom, people who rated themselves as untrustworthy also reported feeling less close to their partner. These untrustworthy speakers were also suspicious of their conversation partners, which seemed to impede the formation of social connection.
In Study 2, we also had pairs of participants complete a 25-minute conversation. Only this time it was text-based and we experimentally manipulated honesty, so that some participants were instructed to lie, while others were instructed to be truthful. Participants who were assigned to lie reported feeling less close to their partner, relative to participants who told the truth. Further analysis suggested that ratings of partners' trustworthiness may explain the relationship. It seems that participants who lied, rated their partners as less trustworthy than participants who told the truth, and this was associated with decreased feelings of closeness.
Even more strikingly, in Study 3 we found that people who report using more lies in their everyday lives are less likely to trust others, and experience greater loneliness. But what about the types of lies? Lies we tell to spare others’ feelings? Interestingly, we found that lies that are told with the purpose of protecting social relationships exhibit the same pattern. Suggesting, even the little white lie, such as telling your partner you like their dress, even if your partner doesn’t catch on, has consequences. Okay, but what if I am only lonely because I don’t have that many friends? Or only have work friends? Again, even when controlling for the number and type of friends in your social network, people who tell more lies, are less likely to trust others, and report experiencing greater loneliness.
Across all of our studies, we found that people who lie tend to assume that others are lying too—even when they are not—and this threatens social connection. Recently, the U.S. Surgeon General has identified loneliness as a public health crisis. Our research suggests that we may begin to address general well-being and improve social relationships, by engaging in honest conversations, even when they are challenging and uncomfortable. Perhaps, the old adage that honesty is the best policy, really is the best policy.