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Well-intended lies are likely to backfire unless the liar is certain it will benefit the recipient.

Deakin Business School organisational behaviour researcher Dr Matthew Lupoli, along with co-authors at the University of Chicago and Bocconi University, investigated different responses to lies told by those acting on the assumption they were in the recipient’s best interests.

They found recipients responded differently depending on whether the lie brought about indisputable benefits.

“The results of our study suggest that in cases where one cannot be certain about how a lie may affect others, it is probably safer to tell the truth,” Dr Lupoli said.

“For example, most people would agree that one should tell a bride that she looks beautiful on her wedding day regardless of whether this is true.

“However, there may be more disagreement about the benefits of falsely telling a person that they look great when trying on a new outfit on any ordinary day.

“We found that this latter type of lie, which we refer to as ‘paternalistic’, requires making an assumption about the recipient’s best interests and differs from other lies that are told with more certainty that the receiver will appreciate the lie.

“It is these paternalistic lies that are not likely to be well-received.”

For the study, the researchers conducted seven experiments involving 2,260 participants and found that, consistent with previous work, people actually preferred being lied to if they agreed it made them better off compared with the truth. However, they also found that people strongly disliked being told paternalistic lies.

Dr Lupoli said the perceived intentions of deceivers played a key role in these effects.

“People are frequently faced with opportunities to tell paternalistic lies,” he said.

“For example, government officials might lie to citizens by concealing facts about potential security threats to avoid inciting national panic; doctors might lie to patients by giving them overly optimistic prognoses in order to provide hope; and friends and romantic partners might lie to each other by delivering false praise with the intention of preventing emotional harm.

“We found that the targets of paternalistic lies did not believe that the liars were truly trying to do what they thought was best for the target.  Interestingly, the harmful effects of paternalistic lies were only mildly mitigated when the liars communicated their good intentions.”

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Originally published by Deakin Media.