How often do you tell a white lie? When the chef at a restaurant asks you how your food is, do you tell him it’s excellent even though you cannot wait to stop by a drive thru afterward? When a sales lady asks you what you think of the dress you've just tried on, do you say it looks pretty even though you hate everything about it? Telling white lies might spare other people’s feelings, but a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research reveals that there's one person who won't be able to leave unscathed--you.

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According to authors Jennifer J. Argo of the University of Alberta and Baba Shiv of Stanford University, telling white lies can lead you to overcompensate and even reward the person who aggravated you. In one study, the authors made their participants wait to the point at which waiting became unpleasant. When asked how they were doing, some of the subjects said that they were fine and, when asked to evaluate the experience, they even gave the researchers a favorable review. Meanwhile, those who didn’t lie gave a less-than-glowing evaluation. If the group found waiting to be unpleasant in the first place, why did some of them still give the experience a good review?

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As ironic as it sounds, there is a logical explanation for the seemingly strange behavior. When you tell a white lie, you experience what the researchers call a "negative affect." It is the feeling that arises when you tell people things they want to hear even though they might not necessarily be the truth. Not telling the truth, in general, is not normally perceived as good behavior, so no matter how good your intentions are, deep down you know that you’re not being honest.

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On some level, you feel a certain kind of guilt for lying to the other person, and you end up trying to make it up. In the case of the chef who made you the worst tasting dish you have ever tasted, you compensate for the guilt by giving him high ratings. In the case of the sales lady you humored, you reward her by buying the hideous outfit. Clearly, this isn’t the best way to get your money’s worth.

The study also raises the issue of increased spending for people who often tell white lies when conducting business. Research reveals that those who tell white lies are not afraid to spend more for services and tips. However, unless you start becoming more honest with your experiences, you might have to keep on paying for not-so-premium services all your life.


To read more studies about consumers, try this article:

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(Photo by Ben Earwicker, Garrison Photography, via sxc.hu)

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