White lies strengthen social relationships


Modelling shows that society, too, can benefit from lying that is not based on self-interest.

Honesty is the best policy, they say. Yet in surveys, people admit to lying once, even twice a day. Should we be worried?

The answer depends on the quality of the lies, reveals a new study by Aalto University, Oxford and Universidad Autónoma de México. Malicious lies or lies told for selfish reasons sever human relationships and erode trust thus making the formation of communities more difficult. Conversely, white lies facilitate the generation of social relationships and may get different parties in society to function together more effectively.

White Lies by Iñiguez, Gowezensky, Dunbar, Kaski and Barrio.jpg’We all tell white lies: few have the guts to admit to a friend or loved one that that particular item of clothing does not suit them at all,’ Professor Kimmo Kaski from Aalto University says, smiling, and shows diagrams consisting of balls and lines. The balls represent individuals, the lines relationships and their formations the modelling performed by a group of researchers in the field of computational science, cooperating with psychologist and anthropologist Robin Dunbar on the impact of lies and their quality to broader social networks.  The results are interesting. 

’According to computer simulation, networks based on complete honesty often contain two groups representing opposing opinions, but hardly any smaller subgroups,’ explains Postdoctoral Researcher Gerardo Iñiguez.

’A network relying on antisocial, selfish lies on the other hand is fragmented into small units with no interaction between them. A network permissive of white lies may contain several small units representing different opinions, but they are linked and brought closer by unselfish liars who are prepared to lie about their own views to benefit others. White lies thus seem to enable large, layered societies, which helps to understand the frequency of lying despite its moral reprehensibility,’ he conjectures.

What makes our study special is combining expertise from different fields.

The mathematical model does not tell the whole truth, but according to Iñiguez the results are consistent with prior results from experimental studies.  In the study, the researchers modelled a situation where the actors had either a positive or a negative stand on a certain issue. The next step is developing the model into a more realistic direction, so that the actors may either state their view honestly or lie about it, depending on the social situation.

’This is by no means rocket science; modelling has already been used extensively in science, sociology and economics. What makes our study special is combining expertise from different fields,' Professor Kaski says.

Further information:

Professor Kimmo Kaski
kimmo.kaski [at] aalto [dot] fi

Gerardo Iñiguez, Postdoctoral Researcher
gerardo.iniguez [at] aalto [dot] fi

Abstract on the study