Is it okay to tell little white lies?

mumler_lincoln_small One of my favorite commercials on television is the one featuring Abe Lincoln.  I have no idea what product they’re hawking, but Mary Todd is asking honest Abe if her dress makes her look fat.

Abe, is caught between a rock and a hard place.  In the end he admits it might, and Mary stalks off in a huff.

Sir Walter Scott wrote about the tangled webs we weave when we begin to deceive. Just look at the endless parade of politicians and famous sports figures who have gotten tangled up in their lies. But research shows that lies affect more than our reputation — they can even affect our health and longevity.


"Research has linked telling lies to an increased risk of cancer, increased risk of obesity, anxiety, depression, addiction, gambling, poor work satisfaction, and poor relationships,” says Deirdre Lee Fitzgerald, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at Eastern Connecticut State University in Willimantic.

So do liars create physical and emotional problems for themselves — or do these problems make people more likely to lie? “In most cases it’s a combination, and in many cases these problems feed into each other," says Fitzgerald.

How Lies Impact Your Health

Because one lie often leads to another, you can be forced into a nerve-wracking cycle of lies that becomes harder and harder to keep track of. Long-term exposure to stress can lead to serious health problems and can decrease longevity.

Lying also can lead to:

  • Depression and anxiety. "When people lie to avoid dealing with emotions or problems, the same problems continue to occur and get worse. It just makes for more emotional work. This often leads to depression and anxiety," says Fitzgerald.
  • Damaged relationships. "Lies [hurt] relationships by damaging trust,” says Fitzgerald. “Without trust there is no intimacy. Lying increases the distance between people, sometimes irreparably."
  • Shattered self-esteem. It’s hard to feel good about yourself when you are living a lie. Lies can seem like an easy way out at first, but when you can’t look at yourself in the mirror, your emotional health can’t survive.

And then there is the issue of substance abuse. A teen that lies about using drugs or alcohol increases his risk of using it more, while decreasing his chance of dealing with it. In both cases, the lies impact the teen’s physical and emotional health. Once you are in the grip of substance abuse or a gambling habit, lies are all but inevitable.

Fitzgerald says lying often starts with those little white lies — the kind that we rationalize as being harmless. “Some might define a ‘harmless’ lie as one that is not likely to be recurrent and does not affect an important relationship,” she Fitzgerald. “But people tell white lies for the same basic reasons that they tell other lies, and the results can be similar. Even white lies can lead to a cycle of bad consequences.”

People learn to tell lies early in life. Lying children may be following the examples of their parents or may be lying to avoid their parent’s anger. Even white lies can become habit forming. And it’s true – truth is a much better long-term strategy and can lead to greater longevity. You’ll avoid the physical and emotional stress that comes from telling lies.

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