Lies aren’t always bad

Language has been a huge boon to our species but has also created a fairly major problem: it’s now really easy to weave an elaborate web of lies to trick someone into helping you, often at their own expense. It’s easy to see how this could really harm society, as people begin to stop trusting one another and refuse to co-operate. As such a lot of research has focused on trying to understand how cultures have adapted to detect and deal with liars.

However, a team of scientists recently asked a really interesting question: what if some lies are actually good? They note that some “white” (or in their fancy science-terms, “prosocial”) lies can help cement relationships, paving the way for future co-operation. Someone feigns an interest in sports, making new friends that then might help them move house (insert more historically relevant example here).

For the past few days this picture has been all over twitter, as people watch other people enjoy the World Cup and resent them for it.

To test this the team (which included Robin Dunbar, who has previously tackled such weighty topics as “why do we have big brains” and “how did language evolve“) created a fairly complex computer simulation in which the “people” would build relationships with one another based on whether they liked them. How much they liked them was influenced by whether they agreed/disagreed with each other on certain topics (perhaps sports? See, my glib joke turns out to be scientifically valid). However, some “people” in the simulation had the option of lying about their opinion on a topic; making someone like them more than if they were honest about their thoughts on the World Cup.

They then let their simulation run a few times, with varying levels of lying. The results are kinda obvious, but also very intriguing. In a society where people lied most of the time (even “prosocial” liars) the virtual society tended to fragment. The few honest people would form cliques with the other honest people they agreed with; and the liars would glom onto one of these groups by feigning agreement. The result was a series of tight nit but relatively isolated groups. A similar situation appeared when everyone was honest all the time, with groups of people who agreed arising and sticking together.

Fun fact: these simulations actually just produced the script for Mean Giirls

The difference came when people sometimes lied about their opinions. In this situation these lies helped people make friends outside of their group; resulting in two large clusters of people who liked it other, compared to the several little cliques in the other simulations. What’s more, the bonds within these cliques tended to be stronger because people were more likely to agree (or say they agree) than in the completely honest simulation, and people were less likely to be suspicious of one another than in the simulation with a lot of liars.

So it would seem that lying can act as a social lubricant, helping people form more relationships than otherwise. This may go some way to explain why the behaviour is so ubiquitous, despite having negative connotations.

However, it is worth noting the study has a few flaws. For example, they don’t demonstrate that these relationships necessarily correlate to benefits for the parties involved. If me and someone like each other because one of us has pretended to share the same opinion, will be equally as likely to help each other as people who have an “honest” relationship? And what if the lies are uncovered? Are societies with more liars in a more precarious situation?

Although the results of this study may seem obvious now, it asked questions nobody else was really asking. However, a few more of them need to be answered before you can feel justified in telling lies.


Iñiguez, G., Govezensky, T., Dunbar, R., Kaski, K., & Barrio, R. A. (2014). Effects of Deception in Social Networks. arXiv preprint arXiv:1406.0673.

4 thoughts on “Lies aren’t always bad

  1. One of the most canonical of sitcom plots involves one party lying to another party, usually with the intent of not hurting their feelings. Inevitably the fooled party finds out the truth, the fooling party is ashamed, everyone forgives each other, lesson learned (don’t lie!). I’m pretty sure every single episode of Three’s Company followed that exact outline.

    There was an episode of House, M.D. where a patient had a disease that blocked his “social filter” with the result that he said exactly what he was feeling. Almost destroyed his marriage. Our own inner voice, moment to moment, often shouldn’t be aired, because it doesn’t always represent the sum total of our views. Passing thoughts can be pretty nasty sometimes!

    Honesty is a good goal and general policy, but those social lies do seem important in helping knit the social fabric. (“Yes, honey, that haircut looks great on you!”)

  2. Pingback: The Conversation – White lies make social networks stronger | Call 021 174 9252

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