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When Truth and Lies Work Together:

Serving the Common Goal of Relationship
Jonathan Foster
Southwestern Assemblies of God University


People claim to value honesty. However, people also tell prosocial lies, or deception

with benevolent intentions, to those they are close to. This presents an apparent

contradiction between a stated value and observable action. Though deception carries a

negative connotation and can have damaging consequences on societal networks, this

primarily applies to selfish lies. People lie for a variety of reasons, but prosocial lies are

commonly told by those in closer relationships and inevitably can build trust, which is in

direct contrast to the negative consequences of selfish deception. Studies demonstrate

that in a variety of relationships, including between parents and children, such prosocial

lies can sometimes build trust better than honesty can. This explains the reason why

people both value truth but are willing to lie for others: both honesty and deception are

used to promote relational stability, as both can serve as tools to ultimately promote the

well-being of another person. Though prosocial lies may have unintended negative

consequences at times, honesty and deception are both important in maintaining

relational stability in interpersonal and societal relationships.

Keywords: deception, prosocial lies, honesty, relational stability, value, trust



Out of all of the content in the Bible, perhaps one of the most recognizable parts

is the Ten Commandments. One of the Ten Commandments refers to lying: “You shall

not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16, English Standard

Version). God commanded His people to be honest with one another, placing it on the

same list as stealing and murder. These commandments remain true to this day for both

Christians and unbelievers alike. However, people also lie to one another on a

consistent basis, even in close relationships (DePaulo & Kashy, 1998). People hold

truth as a value while being willing to lie for various reasons. This poses an apparent

contradiction between stated value and action. This contradiction only exists when

considering selfish deception. People claim to value honesty. However, people will

benevolently lie to one another in spite of that value because they value relationship

stability more fundamentally than honesty, for honesty is just one way to achieve

relational stability.

Honesty is considered an important value by the majority of people (Mealy,

Stephan, & Urrutia, 2007). This value translates across national borders and cultures.

Several studies conducted to test the perceived value of honesty in separate and

distinctly different cultures show that regardless of the culture surveyed, honesty ranked

as an important value for maintaining interpersonal relationships (Mealy, et al., 2007;

Schwartz & Bilsky, 1987). The need for honesty applies to societal relationships as well.

Honesty is considered essential to build trust (Levine & Schweitzer, 2015). A company

would not be able to attract investors if it consistently reported less-than-factual financial

reports. A king could not rule the kingdom if his vassals lied about enemy forces

approaching. A congregation would not be able to grow spiritually if the pastor lied

about church finances.

Regardless of the cultural context or time period, honesty plays a crucial part of

humanity’s operations in a society. Honesty is a common factor in people’s interactions

with one another to promote trust. The closer the relationship, the more powerful this

correlation. This is especially true for familial relationships. Parents are reported to

highly value their children’s honesty for various reasons, such as knowing how to best

protect them and provide for them (Lavoie, Leduc, Crossman, & Talwar, 2016). Without

this level of trust, it would be difficult for a parent to understand their child’s needs.

In contrast to this value for honesty, a breach of trust through dishonesty creates

damaging effects on interpersonal relationships that are difficult to repair (Levine &

Schweitzer, 2015). Though dishonesty is expressed in several different ways,

‘deception’ is a commonly used type of dishonesty in interpersonal relationships.

Precisely defining deception proves to be a challenging task. Philosophical scholars

debate over creating a precise definition for deception because of the different contexts

and nuances that people can lie in (Bok, 2001). There are several contexts where

deceiving someone is not actively considered deception, such as the telling of a joke.

Jokes are not considered damaging to interpersonal relationships or societies, yet it

reflects elements of dishonesty in that the actor intends to mislead the audience (Bok,

2001). In an attempt to address the context in which an individual deceives another, the

following definition for deception is proposed: people lie when “[they] assert something

that [they] believe to be false” (Fallis, 2009). In this definition, assert means to

understand that the situation calls for telling the truth, yet the individual lies anyway

(Fallis, 2009). A person that tells a joke is not actively lying since the individual

understands the situation is comedic and the audience will not be inclined to take the

joke as stated truth. Underreporting taxes or lying about cheating on a spouse is

considered deception though: the situation demands that the individual tells the truth.

The application of this deception toward other people induces strong negative

consequences on both interpersonal and societal cohesion (Iñiguez, Govezensky,

Dunbar, Kaski, & Barrio, 2014). For example, school-age children that observe adults

lying will model this behavior and are more likely to selfishly lie themselves (Lavoie, et

al., 2016). Parents and children need to trust one another in order to provide for one

another. The case of a parent lying to a child can therefore influence the child to lie to

the parent, creating a divide. In romantic couples, individuals that perceive their partner

deceives them on a regular basis report lower relationship satisfaction numbers than

those that actively trust their partner (DePaulo & Kashy, 1998). The damaging

consequences of deception extend beyond family and romantic relationships. Studies

demonstrate that perceived anti-social deception can constrict social networks, reducing

social cohesion (Iñiguez, et al., 2014; Wiltermuth, Newman, & Raj, 2015). A breach of

trust for selfish reasons can break down interpersonal relationships entirely, which shifts

communication in a societal context. Anti-social deception can sever connections with

other people, thereby fragmenting the ability for a society to function (Iñiguez, et al.,

2014). In other words, people that cannot trust one another cannot rely on one another,

limiting effectiveness in business and open communication. Those that are willing to

deceive another for personal reward are more willing to do so the greater the reward,

even at the expense of the one deceived (Gneezy, 2005). This can create an

environment where individuals in a society are willing to metaphorically step on top of

another for their own benefit, which creates suffering for the gain of another (Wiltermuth,

et al., 2015). Thus, the actions of one deceiving actor can influence others to model this

behavior, disrupting significant portions of the social network. Considering all of these

negative consequences on interpersonal and societal relationships, it makes sense that

people would value honesty.

Yet, people do lie, though for a variety of reasons. One out of ten interactions

within a marriage context will result in a deception comment (DePaulo & Kashy, 1998).

People get charged for lying during court testimonies even after swearing to tell the

truth. Exploring an example described earlier, parents indeed lie to their children and to

other people (Lavoie, et al., 2016; Hays & Carver, 2014). This is in direct contrast to the

fact parents will often teach their children to always tell the truth and that lying is always

wrong (Lavoie, et al., 2016; Hays & Carver, 2014). Children can see the difference

between what the parents instruct and what they practice. Children that realized their

parents’ deception will model their behavior to also lie, though normally for more selfish

reasons than why the parents lied (Hays & Carver, 2014). This presents a stated

contradiction of value: parents state that they value honesty, but their actions lie in

contrast to this stated belief. In reality, most adults, including parents, are willing to lie to

other people if they feel it will either protect themselves, their loved ones, or directly

benefit the one being lied to (Lavoie, et al., 2016; Xua, Luo, Fuc, & Lee, 2009). These

beneficial lies are called prosocial lies, as they are intended to create positive

environments for others as opposed to just the self (Lupoli, Jampol, & Overis, 2017).

Prosocial lies are intended to create harmony in interpersonal relationships.


Here is a theoretical example of prosocial lying: one man is attracted to a girl and

wishes to receive advice from his friends about how to approach her. He is socially

apprehensive and wants input from his trusted friends before taking action, as he is

unsure of how she will respond to his advances. His friends do not think that she will be

receptive to him, but do not want to discourage their friend. In order to protect his

feelings, they tell him that he is a good guy and that he should have confidence in

asking her out. This convinces the man to ask the girl out, but she turns his advances

down and begins avoiding him.

In this example, the man’s friends intentionally deceived him. However, their

intention was for his benefit, as they wanted to protect his feelings and wanted him to be

successful. However, this ultimately backfired. Even though prosocial lies are told in

contexts to benefit the recipient of the lie, it can lead to unintended consequences

(Lupoli, et al., 2017). For prosocial lies, these consequences are typically negative. A

common result of prosocial deception is false confidence in the ability to complete

something (Wiltermuth, et al., 2015). The example of the man and his friends

demonstrates this false confidence. The friends had good intentions, but the

consequences created more harm than good.

However, prosocial lying can also lead to positive consequences. Consider the

widely known example of Santa Claus. Parents in different cultures across the world will

tell their children about Santa Claus (Prentice, Manoservitz, & Hubbs, 1978) and how he

brings the children presents for Christmas. Young children hear stories and songs about

Santa from their parents and their societies at large. Parents know that the one placing

presents under the tree for Christmas is in fact themselves. However, many parents still

deceive their children about Santa’s existence. This is an example of a prosocial lie that

does not create direct negative consequences and arguably encourages positive

influences on children (Prentice, et al., 1978). For children, Santa adds another element

to the already exciting season. Even though Santa is not a real person, parents still

enjoy seeing their children participate in “make-believe behavior” which potentially

increases a child’s cognitive abilities (Prentice, et al., 1978). The story of Santa, though

inherently deceptive, is propagated for prosocial reasons and brings wonder to many

children’s Christmases.

The benefits of prosocial lying in interpersonal and societal contexts do not stop

with this example. In contrast to anti-social deception, which is commonly connotated

with the word deception, prosocial deception can increase the size and strength of

social networks (Wiltermuth, et al., 2015). This is in direct contrast to antisocial

deception. The reason for this is counterintuitive: “lying can increase trust” (Levine &

Schweitzer, 2015). Honesty is demonstrated to build trust, yet prosocial deception can

build trust despite the disparate nature of honesty and deception. Individuals will

demonstrate increased trust toward those that will deceive them for benevolent reasons

(Levine & Schweitzer, 2015; Lupoli, et al., 2017; Levine, et al., 2018). However, this

seems to lie in direct contrast to the consequences of deception as described


A contradiction still exists: people claim to value honesty as important in

maintaining relationships, but they still lie to one another even when considering this

relationship. If it is recognized that honesty is necessary for relationships, why do

people lie to one another, even prosocially? Prosocial lying has the potential for both

negative and positive consequences (Lupoli, et al., 2017), so why take the risk?

Honesty builds trust. Lying can build trust. Why?

Understanding why people value honesty at all provides the answer. Prosocial

lying and deception with altruistic intentions can actually build trust because of the

perceived benevolence from both parties (Levine & Schweitzer, 2015; Lupoli, et al.,

2017; Wiltermuth, et al., 2015). Even if the act of deception is normally associated with

negative consequences, the results of this deception are not always negative and both

the deceiver and receiver can understand this. Reasons for prosocial lying range from

compassion to mutual gain (Lupoli, et al., 2017). In other words, perceived benevolence

builds trust. Honesty typically demonstrates this benevolence, but can actually be

utilized with the intent to harm and be just as destructive as anti-social deception

(Iñiguez, et al., 2014). What maintains the relationship is the perceived benevolence of

the individual, whether telling the truth or lying (Iñiguez, et al., 2014). Honesty and

deception are both tools that are used to build or harm relationships.

An analysis of universal human values provides further insight. Studies

demonstrate that there are a series of “value domains” shared across cultures

(Schwartz & Bilsky, 1987). These domains are categories of universal values shared by

humanity as a whole. One of these domains is the prosocial domain, which is the

“positive, active concern for the welfare of others” (Schwartz & Bilsky, 1987). This

concern for welfare directly ties into the philosophical concept of well-being. Though

well-being is historically difficult to define, recent evaluations define well-being as the

“balance point between an individual’s resource pool and the challenges faced” (Dodge,

Daly, Huyton, & Sanders, 2012). The different categories of resources and challenges

are psychological, social, and physical in nature. An individual needs balance between

the resources in these areas and the challenges that these resources can answer

(Dodge, et al., 2012). In some cases, honesty may not be able to provide all the

resources necessary to answer the psychological, social, and physical challenges

another person owns. Prosocial lying has the capacity to provide resources to meet the

challenges another person faces, such as emotional security and social power (Dodge,

et al., 2012; Schwartz & Bilsky, 1987). For example, telling the raw truth about a

person’s appearance may hurt them, but a well-intentioned lie can boost their self-

confidence. Meeting these needs builds stronger social networks and ultimately trust

(Iñiguez, et al., 2014; Wiltermuth, et al., 2015; Mealy, et al., 2007; Xua, et al., 2009).

People can meet the needs of others through both truth and lies.

This proposes the idea that people in reality value relational stability over honesty

itself. The prosocial domain of human value is addressed with benevolent intentions and

actions, which is why prosocial lies can build trust. An overabundance of honesty can

even be perceived to be harmful to relationships since there are instances where telling

the truth would violate the trust of another individual (Iñiguez, et al., 2014; Levine &

Schweitzer, 2015). Honesty does not immediately translate into trust, just as deception

does not immediately translate into harm. Well-being represents a deeper value domain

that focuses on the protection and promotion of the welfare of others (Schwartz &

Bilsky, 1987). This explains why cultures will claim to hold honesty as a value, yet

accept dishonesty if it is beneficial and altruistic. The promotion of harmony in

interpersonal relationships is considerably more important than honesty itself (Mealy, et

al., 2007). This also explains why in some contexts, prosocial lies are not considered

acceptable even if benevolent (Lupoli, et al., 2017; Xua, et al., 2009), as maintaining the

relationship is more important than the intention, honest or not.

In other words, trust is just one tool to promote the prosocial welfare of others. In

fact, both honesty and deception can serve as proper means to build relationships when

utilized properly. In cases where honesty would fail to best maintain relational stability,

prosocial lying is utilized for the benefit of the other. These altruistic lies can lead to the

“smooth running of society” in cases where raw honesty would potentially harm the

relationship and create tight social networks that are built on trust from benevolence

(Iñiguez, et al., 2014). This is why many parents will deceive their children. Though it

may be through lies, parents can protect their children from potential harm and give

them better opportunities to mature (Lavoie, et al., 2016). The relationship between the

parent and child is more important than the value of honesty itself, and if an action

contradictory to honesty provides a better means to target the well-being of the other

person, then it makes sense to use an altruistic lie.

However, there are still drawbacks to relying on deception to build and maintain

relational stability. Even though prosocial lies are intended for the benefit of others, the

consequences of the lie can still be detrimental to relational stability (Lupoli, et al.,

2017). The theoretical example of the man who asked his friends for advice is just one

case where good intentions could go wrong. Also note that though prosocial lying can

have positive effects, there could be other options that also present positive outcomes

(Lupoli, et al., 2017; Xua, et al., 2009). Even if a prosocial lie may be helpful in a

situation, other options such as telling the truth or abstaining from saying anything may

also yield benefits. Helpful untruth is rated less positively than helpful truth (Xua, et al.,

2009). In cases where both honesty and a prosocial lie can both maintain relational

stability, honesty has less risk involved. One reason for this is that the liar and the

recipient of the lie may hold incongruent evaluations of the prosocial lie (Levine, et al.,

2018). Even if the actor that deceives evaluates the lie will be for the other’s benefit, the

other may not receive this evaluation the same way. The person telling the lie will

inevitably make a judgement about whether to tell the prosocial lie by weighing on the

consequences to him/herself to the benefit for the other, while the recipient will be more

concerned about the consequence of the deception (Levine, et al., 2018). Since the

recipient is, regardless of intention, lied to, they will place greater weight on the

benevolence of the intention behind the lie than the person who tells the lie. These

discrepancies present a potential cause for conflict.

Parents that tell prosocial lies to their children can inadvertently influence them to

adopt dishonest behavior (Lavoie, et al., 2016; Hays & Carver, 2014). Adult parents

have developed social skills to promote the use of prosocial lies, but young children

have not. Even though the parent may lie with benevolent intentions in mind, the child

will often adopt a selfish deception policy, as they do not yet possess the advanced

socialization skills of their older parents (Lavoie, et al., 2016; Xua, et al., 2009; Hays &

Carver, 2014). Good intentions do not always lead to good results.

In addition, the context in which prosocial lies are told is important when

considering relational health and well-being. It is easier for those already close to each

other to accept prosocial lies, as they established a foundation of trust (Mealy, et al.,

2007). When trust is already established, both parties can filter the deception through

the trust as a lens. Lying to someone considered a stranger or not in the social network

evaluates negatively regardless of the intention (Mealy, et al., 2007). Along a similar

note, the social status of the individuals involved can determine the acceptability of

deception. For example, an employee can lie to the boss about workforce morale,

stating it is positive while it is actually negative, in order to cheer the boss up. This lie is

told with benevolent intent in mind, but if the boss finds out about the deception, he will

not receive it well. It only makes sense to utilize prosocial lies to maintain relational

stability if the relationship is already established and appropriate for it.

Regardless of these risks, both honesty and deception are used to maintain the

deeper value of relational stability and well-being. Prosocial lies can benefit the one

deceived, “preserving the dyadic relationship between the stability of the relationship”

(Iñiguez, et al., 2014). Since people value the welfare of others, it only makes sense

that whatever means to best promote their welfare is fair game to use. This is why

adults see both prosocial lying and telling the truth for the benefit of others in a positive

light (Xua, et al., 2009). Romantic relationships develop from both: prosocial lies told to

a partner can convey trust on the other’s side, but there is still a need for honesty in the

relationship (DePaulo & Kashy, 1998). In the end, the relationship is considered most

important, not the method of preserving it.


Discussion and Limitations

This research paper attempts to explain why those that claim to value honesty

are still willing to lie for others. This paper follows universal human principles to make

evaluations of people across different cultures. Even though different cultures all

evaluate prosocial lies positively, the degree to which it is acceptable is different for

different people groups (Mealy, et al., 2007; Schwartz & Bilsky, 1987). In addition, this

paper does not account for instances where people do not actively value honesty.

Though societies may generally hold that honesty is an important value to maintain

relationships, this does not speak for individuals who may disagree with this. For

example, Euro-Americans rated the acceptability of selfishly lying to others more highly

than Ecuadorians (Mealy, et al., 2007). Following this thought, it is possible that parents

may not teach their children to be honest in all situations and may even encourage their

children to lie. Parents may also lie to their children to selfish reasons rather than

benevolent ones.

Lastly, this paper does not explore the implications of these findings in relation to

an absolute moral code. For example, the Bible takes a clear position against lying: “do

not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices…”

(Colossians 3:9). Deception of any kind is deemed unacceptable by such a moral code,

which would require a different study to investigate.



People claim honesty is an important value for maintaining healthy relationships,

yet they are willing to lie to one another in an altruistic manner. This is because people

value relational health and stability more fundamentally than honesty, as honesty is

simply one way to achieve this. Both honesty and deception become tools to promote

the welfare of another person, building tighter social networks and trust through

benevolent intentions. Even though deception potentially creates several negative

consequences for both the liar and the recipient, it is worth considering using prosocial

deception to deepen the relationships of those around us when appropriate. Honesty is

and always will be an important value for society, but rather than discount other ways to

communicate with people, acknowledging the usefulness of the occasional prosocial lie

may in fact remove elements of hypocrisy from our actions (Levine & Schweitzer, 2015).

Sometimes, truth and lies can work together to accomplish the same thing.


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