Is it ever OK to lie?

With the release of ITV’s new psychological thriller Cheat, where a question mark over the extent of somebody’s truthfulness spirals into a devastating chain of events, we sought out the truth about lying. Is it ever acceptable to twist the truth, and if so, when? Christobel Hastings unravels the politics behind spinning a yarn…

Let’s be honest: we all tell lies. 

From tall tales to throwaway fibs, while many of us grew up obeying the do-not-lie prohibitions of our parents, in reality, the world is rarely so black and white. 

If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of questions like, ‘Do you like my boyfriend?’ or ‘How do you like my cooking?’, you’ll know that as Fleetwood Mac once sang, sometimes a sweet little lie is the only way to spare a loved one’s feelings.

Whether we admit that we regularly fudge the truth or maintain a squeaky clean self-perception, most of us tell lies on a daily basis, even though we know it’s not ideal.

In fact, 79% of people we asked admitted to lying about things they’re embarrassed to admit.

According to USC psychologist Gerald Jellison, we are told up to 200 lies per day, while a study conducted by University of Massachusetts psychologist Robert S. Feldman found that 60% of people told at least one lie during a 10-minute conversation.

That means you can feel less bad next time you’re in the middle of a conversation with someone claiming to have their dream job, a mansion in zone 1 and the partner of their dreams.

What’s more, we hone the ability to lie as we enter adulthood (despite 61% of people thinking they’re not good liars), while simultaneously deceiving ourselves that we’re honest people.

Scientists have even suggested that in the game of evolution, lying gave our predecessors a higher chance of reproductive success.

From a young age, lies are woven into the fabric of everyday life. 

In childhood, we are told ‘prosocial lies’ to protect us from hard truths, such as parents lying to their children about the tooth fairy, or preserving a sense of stability by pretending Paw Patrol isn’t on TV. 

And as we grow older, we develop the capacity to tell white lies.

Borne from a place of empathy and compassion, we learn to prioritise another’s person’s feelings, and endeavour to protect them from unnecessary pain. 

Not only are these well-meaning lies considered the least harmful form of deception. They’re also socially acceptable across many different cultures, as a means of strengthening bonds between family and friends, and because they come from compassion rather than deceit (83% of people have lied to protect someone else).

That means telling your friend nobody saw her walk across the restaurant with her skirt in her pants or assuring your sister you haven’t seen her ex on that dating app.

But while most lies are well-intentioned, other deliberate deceptions are told to avoid shame, protect ourselves from blame, or boost our own ego. 

’Antisocial lies’, otherwise known as black lies, are told for personal gain, and usually come at another person’s expense. 

So, black lies are more about the car salesperson that tells you your new wheels are perfectly fine while knowing the whole time that the car is likely to fall to pieces the minute you drive off. 

Often, they have paternalistic motivations too, requiring the deceiver to make assumptions about whether lying is in the best interest of the person being deceived. 

When we start to examine the motivations behind our lies, we begin to understand our personal code of ethics. 

“To identify how ethical a lie is, you shouldn’t just assess the lie itself, but the reasons behind it,” explains cognitive behavioural psychotherapist Peter Klein.

“Someone may lie to a bullying manager about their work progress in order to avoid trouble, which can be very different to lying about one’s progress in order to close a deal. Although they appear similar, the intention behind both indicates their ethical nature”.

While our decision to tell lies is informed by a complex blend of values, intentions and potential repercussions, there is one underlying factor that unites them all.

“Lying is a response to either internal or external pressure,” explains Philip Karahassan, psychotherapist and founder of Therapy in London.

“It’s your automatic response to negate and diminish pressure as soon as possible.”

So, where do we draw the line when it comes to fibbing? 

Questioning yourself about the motivations behind your lie can be a good starting point, explains clinical psychologist and author Dr Jessamy Hibberd

“Ask yourself if you’re lying to intentionally deceive or hurt someone, or lying to protect them,” she advises.

Thinking about the emotions tied up with the lie can also be a strong barometer of whether it’s rooted in compassion or self-interest. 

“If you’re worried about upsetting someone or you fear they might be angry, you may be more likely to lie,” adds Hibberd.

But weighing up the feelings of those who are being lied to won’t always provide us with a clear-cut choice between lying and telling the truth.

“It’s important to remember that choosing whether to tell a lie or the truth can’t be assessed by how other people respond,” adds Klein. 

One thing’s for sure: if we don’t create the conditions for honesty, then our deceptions can cause long-standing damage, both to our relationships and our personal identity. 

“If lying becomes a staple in your life, you’ll find it easier to lie than tell the truth, living in a false reality where ethical integrity is negated as a consequence of a false reality,” explains Karahassan. 

“Lying is a short term solution, but long term, it taints how others perceive you as well as the way you connect with yourself.” 

Nevertheless, there will always be situations when we’re compelled to skew the truth – it’s simply human nature.

Which is why, when you’re deciding whether to tell a lie, it’s important to seriously consider the motivation and impact of your deception.

“If you’re lying with good intentions, calculate the likelihood of being found out and the cost if it occurs,” recommends Hibberd.

But beyond that, broaden your perspective beyond your immediate circumstances, and evaluate the nature of the relationship at stake.

“If you want a relationship where you know you can trust what the other person says, then honesty is always best,” says Hibberd. “The saying ‘treat others as you wish to be treated yourself’ is always a good guideline.”

New psychological thriller Cheat, airing across four nights, starts Monday 11 March on ITV.