Participants in the experiments said they would value ethical deception both as the liars and as the people being lied to. In one study, Levine divided participants into three groups: communicators, third-party judges, and targets. No matter how participants were asked to view themselves—as the liar, the lied-to, or separate from the lie—a majority endorsed deception when the truth might cause considerable immediate harm and would have low long-term value. If telling the truth will hurt someone emotionally or physically and won’t encourage learning or growth, why be honest?
“I would want someone to lie to me when the alternative of telling the truth would make me feel worse off and I would have no control over what happens,” wrote one participant. “For example, if my beloved dog died after being hit by a negligent driver, I’d much rather my parents or friends have told me the dog died peacefully in its sleep than to tell me the facts.”
Others explained that they would want people to lie about something that couldn’t be changed, and one person gave the example of asking friends whether they “looked OK” for a night out. If the question was posed from home, “I hope they would tell me the truth, so I could change whatever looked bad (as best I could),” wrote the participant. But if the same person asked the same question when already out, and received an honest but negative response, “my night would be ruined and I would have to stay at the bar knowing I looked bad.”
Levine says that a lot of research in this area, including hers, documents cases where “communicators think it’s OK to lie and the targets don’t agree.” But when a lie clearly involves unnecessary harm, targets and communicators largely agree it’s preferable to the truth, she finds.
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