When lying helps, and when it hurts

New study finds when telling lies, perception matters

If you think you’re helping someone by lying, you may want to think again.

Telling a lie in order to help or protect someone—a practice known as prosocial lying—backfires if the person being lied to perceives the lie as paternalistic, according to new research from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

Emma Levine

In the paper, “Paternalistic Lies,” published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Chicago Booth Assistant Professor Emma Levine, Deakin University’s Matthew Lupoli, and UCLA Anderson’s Adam Eric Greenberg, find that well-intentioned lies can spark strong resentment from the person who is deceived.

The researchers identify a key factor that determines whether people respond positively or negatively to prosocial lies: the extent to which the lie provides unequivocal benefits for the recipient.

In some instances, people welcome deception, the authors note.

“When the recipient agrees that he or she is better off being lied to, for example, when the lie brings the target a monetary gain, or when the target has already made their desires for deception known to the liar, targets welcome deception. But if there is any question about whether the lie is superior to the truth, people would prefer not to be deceived,” Levine said.

The authors define paternalistic lies as those that require the liar to make assumptions about whether lying is in the deceived party’s best interest. For example, although most people agree that falsely telling a bride she looks beautiful on her wedding day benefits the bride, there may be considerable disagreement about the benefits of falsely telling a friend she looks beautiful in new clothing she is trying on, when the clothing is in fact unflattering and she would be better off without it. When the communicators choose to lie in this case, they are likely acting on their assumptions about how the person will handle the truth.

The targets of paternalistic lies tend to believe that the liar 1) doesn’t have good intentions, 2) is violating their autonomy, and/or 3) inaccurately predicts their preferences.


“We sometimes tell lies to others believing that they will help, when in reality we are acting upon a paternalistic assumption that lying is better than the truth,” said Levine. “Our research demonstrates that in these situations, the individual on the receiving end is likely to resent deception.”


The research team was surprised to find that even when paternalistic liars explain to those they deceived that they meant well, the communication of intention does little to reduce resentment.

For example, in one of the seven studies in the paper, researchers had half of the deceivers explicitly tell the targets that they told the lie because they thought it was best for the recipient. The other half got no so such communication. However, both groups had the same levels of unhappiness with the deceivers, and both groups were just as skeptical of the deceivers, “suggesting that they simply did not believe the word of those who told paternalistic lies,” Levine said.

The findings have important implications for policies that implicitly or explicitly condone paternalistic lies. Governments, for example, might withhold information about a security threat to avoid widespread panic, but it may be difficult to convince the public that lying was for the best after the deception has occurred. Likewise, doctors may tell paternalistic lies to patients by giving them overly optimistic prognoses in order to provide hope, without ever discussing the patient's preferences for hope versus realism.