When It's OK to Lie, According to Experts

Photo Illustration: Aly Lim
Photo Illustration: Aly Lim

So you told a friend you had to leave her party early because of a big meeting in the morning, though in reality, you just couldn't wait to run home to binge "Bridgerton" on your couch. Or, you told a friendly sales associate your day was "great," when actually, it could have been better. Sure, these are lies. But since they're not hurting anyone, they're OK to tell . . . right? Experts say the answer is more complicated.

It's important to understand why we're telling lies in the first place. Lying is often socially motivated, says Christian L. Hart, PhD, a psychologist and writer who researches lying and deception. "If we look at what most people lie about, most of the time it's to save face or avoid embarrassment," he explains. "It's really this concern that if people knew the truth about us, they would reject us or there'd be some unfavorable social consequences." And while some people do tell lies to cause harm, Hart says most lies aren't for "direct gain."

Although lying can often feel innocent, ultimately, only you can be the judge of whether your lie is "OK." For PS's Radical Honesty Issue, we spoke to experts to help examine what that looks like. Because as therapist America Allen, MSW, LCSW, says, "That is a part of radical honesty — accepting the fact that a lie is a lie." Ahead, Hart and Allen break down when it might be OK to lie and what you should be cautious of when you do choose to lie.

Experts Featured in This Article:

Christian L. Hart, PhD, is a psychologist, writer, and professor of psychology at Texas Woman's University.

America Allen, MSW, LCSW, is a therapist and the owner of SuNu Healing Collectively, a mental health private practice located in Durham, NC.

Is It OK to Lie?

"Generally speaking, we know that lying isn't something that we want to make a habit of, because it can naturally lead to more negative consequences," Allen says. However, she does say there are times when a "white lie" or harmless lie is the kinder option.

Hart agrees, adding that a lie is seen as "forgivable" if we understand the intention behind it wasn't to take advantage or to treat someone poorly. In fact, in this case, he says many would prefer to be lied to. "When we ask hundreds of people, they tell us they'd rather be told a small white lie than a truth that will hurt their feelings," he says. "And they see people as bad if they choose to tell a harmful truth rather than a white lie. When we look at the hundreds of participants we've studied, we see that most people desire a certain degree of dishonesty."

When Is It OK to Lie?

Let's say your significant other asks if you like her outfit as she's running out the door. You're not particularly a fan, but considering you want to spare her feelings and it's probably too late for her to change, you simply say you like it. According to Hart, the average person wants a certain degree of lying or withholding of the truth, especially when "the truth offers only harm and the lie causes no harm." "When people look at situations like that, they want the least harmful action to be taken against them," he says.

"We need to be aware of our motives, understand the impact of the lie, and recognize why we felt we needed to lie in the first place."

But Allen argues that just because a lie isn't harmful, doesn't make it OK. "We need to be aware of our motives, understand the impact of the lie, and recognize why we felt we needed to lie in the first place," she says. In the example above, Allen suggests that while you may think you're softening the blow, you're still being deceptive. "We have to think about the strength of the relationship. If we're lying about things as simple as makeup or a sweater or whatever it is, then it also calls into question how you show up when it's the bigger things."

For Allen, only a few scenarios feel acceptable to lie in. One is lying to protect someone from immediate danger. "Let's say a friend is dealing with an abusive partner and that abusive partner is calling you to inquire about where they are," she says. "You lying in that instance, you were trying to prevent harm. You're trying to protect this friend, so a lie in this nature is a protective measure. It's not an act of betrayal."

Another is any lie involving a joyous occasion or celebration, like lying about your whereabouts because you're planning a surprise birthday party for a friend. Allen also believes in some cases, it's OK for people to lie to those they don't know very well to "maintain social harmony" or avoid any unnecessary conflict, because a deeper relationship isn't at stake. But even in those situations, understand that if it becomes a pattern, you're probably not being authentic to yourself.

What to Consider Before Telling a Lie

When it comes to any lie, Allen encourages folks to consider the short- and long-term consequences, especially if it involves someone you have an established relationship with. Ask yourself: "Is this worth the potential fallout? Is it easier for me to tell the truth now and have this conversation, or would it be more harmful to our relationship if this person were to find out a couple days, weeks, months, years later that I lied about this?"

Hart also emphasizes honesty for fostering genuine connections and building trust in relationships. "Lies serve as obstacles to us having real connections with others," he says. "The more honest we are with people actually entices them to be more honest with us. And when we've looked at lies that people have reported they told and why they told them, one of the things we see is that they oftentimes have overblown concerns about what would happen if they were honest. And what we see is that if people are honest, they're often surprised at how well things go."

Allen adds that frequent lying — innocuous or not — can become a habit, and lead to damaging your personal integrity and credibility. "You are causing for the people around you to not trust you, and then eventually you start to not trust yourself," she says.

"The big takeaway is just this acknowledgement that we all probably lie too much and we'd be better served if we're honest," Hart says. "If we can really ask ourselves, 'Is this absolutely necessary?,' we might find ourselves becoming more honest and actually having more satisfaction with our social lives."

Yerin Kim is the features editor at POPSUGAR, where she helps shape the vision for special features and packages across the network. A graduate of Syracuse University's Newhouse School, she has over five years of experience in the pop culture and women's lifestyle spaces. She's passionate about spreading cultural sensitivity through the lenses of lifestyle, entertainment, and style.