White Lies Are Beneficial in Social Networks

liesWhite lies were shown to be beneficial in developing and maintaining social networks, according to a recent study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Lies that were deemed antisocial, however, were shown to be destructive to social networks.

Scientists from Finland, Mexico and the United Kingdom performed the study. The purpose of their research study was not to analyze the effects of telling lies on a personal level but to try to analyze the effect of lying on social organization and how lying may constrain the shaping of a society as a whole. The study employed computational methods and a mathematical model of how groups develop and change over time was created. The key variable that was manipulated in the mathematical model was the occurrence of lies.

Social psychologists have distinguished four types of lies, which are called pro-social (lying to protect someone), self-enhancement (lying to save face), selfish (lying in order to protect oneself at the expense of someone else) and antisocial (lying for the purpose of hurting another person intentionally). Lies analyzed in the study, however, were divided into two groups, antisocial lies and prosocial lies. Examples of antisocial lies would be lying about having committed a crime, injuring someone or other deceptions that were for personal gain. The commonly understood notion of “white lies” would be considered an example of prosocial lies. An example of a white lie would be to tell someone they do not look fat in a dress, even though the dress may not be flattering, in order to “keep the peace” in a relationship.

The results from the study showed that there was complete disintegration of a community when each person included in the model was deceptive and only looking out for themselves. White lies, however, produced very different results. Even when there was a high rate of telling white lies, the model showed that social networking was actually facilitated. The people formed small, tight-knit groups and there were some links that occurred between some of the groups when white lies were told. A limitation to the model that these researchers developed is it simplified the reality of lies in a social setting. It assumed a constant rate of lies throughout time and the lies were told in all relationships.

It may be surprising that the amount of lying that occurs in America has been studied, but it has been studied and reported. In a report published in the journal Human Communication Research in 2010, it was stated that, based on a survey of 1,000 adults, 60 percent said they told no lies during a 24 hour period and about half of the lies that were reported were told by only five percent of the participants. An interpretation would be that most people are basically honest and there are a few “outliers” that do most of the lying. These would be the people that would likely be destructive to social networks.

The scientists who carried out this study on lies and social networks were interested in determining effects on the evolution of societies. They were interested in the capacity to build complex, integrated social networks that are found with more complex organisms such as primates, elephants, dolphins and humans. It seems that white lies can beneficial in the development and evolution of social networks while lies told to hurt others for the benefit of self are destructive.

By Margaret Lutze

Proceedings of the Royal Society B
Human Communication Research

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