May 28, 2017
Lying businessman holding fingers crossed behind his back
Expert Q&A

What Are 'Blue Lies'?

by Amanda Z. Naprawa  |  

Image Credit: Tearsa Joy HammockThe recent and much-publicized coining of the term “alternative facts” by presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway has raised questions about just where the truth fits into today’s political arena—and our society at large, for that matter. Do politicans lie more than in the past, or has lying become more culturally acceptable in general? And if the latter is true, why? Jeremy Adam Smith, editor of Greater Good magazine, published by the UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center, talked with us about a relatively new phenomenon known as “blue lies”—lies that are told on behalf of a group rather than an individual—and how they help explain what’s going on in American politics and culture.

What is a “blue lie,” and where did that phrase originate?

When we talk about lying, typically we’re talking about either selfish falsehoods—which people sometimes call “black lies”—or white lies. Developmentally, children start telling the first type at around age three, when they figure out that adults can't read their minds. A white lie is selfless, or at least harmless, and children start to tell those by age seven, when their capacities for empathy and compassion begin to emerge.

As they grow older, kids start to develop the ability to tell lies on behalf of their group, often as a way to gain advantage over another group. By age 11, they're fully capable of lying, for example, about whether a teammate violated the rules of a game. This is a "blue" lie—a term that has appeared recently in studies on moral reasoning in children.

How do the different types of lies affect social networks or structure?

Malicious lies drive people apart, by sowing distrust. Studies show that responses to white lies tend to be much more varied. They can create distrust, but they can also bring people together—we often intuitively understand that white lies are motivated by kindness.

There are not many studies on the social and psychological impact of blue lies specifically, but there is substantial literature examining the impact of politically motivated falsehoods. These two branches of study combine to reveal a truth that I think a lot of people will immediately grasp: When we tell lies on behalf of a group and people in the group buy into the lie, it binds them together.

Historically speaking, these lies might be fairly harmless, and may play a role similar to fiction—they're just stories that might reveal a deeper truth about a group of people. George Washington might not have really chopped down that cherry tree, but we told kids that story for years because, we hoped, it helped build our identity as Americans. Other kinds of politically motivated lies are incredibly hurtful to another group; though some readers may disagree, I would suggest Americans have told many harmful blue lies about Native Americans and African slaves.

And here we get to the dark side of blue lies: It is infuriating when someone lies in a way that distorts or damages a group of which you are a part. So blue lies can bring some people together while driving others away. They have attributes of both black (malicious) and white lies, which is why you sometimes just hear people call them gray lies. I don't personally like that term, because it implies that the lie could be good or bad, depending on where you stand. But a blue lie is much more clear-cut than that. It's unambiguously helpful to one group while hurtful to another.

How are lies used as weapons of war?

During wartime, governments lie so as to fool the enemy. Even during peacetime, intelligence agencies routinely deceive the public and other nations in the interests of national security.

There are many stories aimed at children and young adults that valorize lying in the name of a good cause. The Star Wars movies offer many good examples of heroes telling quite a few lies—and why not? It’s a war story, pitting the light side against the dark. For example, Obi Wan-Kenobi lies to stormtroopers about the droids being looked for; his Jedi mind trick creates a false belief in their brains, which shapes their actions in a way that benefits him and hurts the Empire. So this would fall into the category of a blue lie.

Within our own social and cultural groups, violence and deception can be crimes. But when soldiers kill the enemy,we give them medals; when spies deceive other nations, we wink and look the other way, hoping that they're doing it for us, to our own advantage. When we humans turn some group of people into the enemy, lies to them and about them seem justified.

Are blue lies becoming more prolific in our political sphere—and are we becoming desensitized to them?

I think the answer is yes, definitely, and we have quite a lot of evidence to support the idea that lying has recently become more pervasive and acceptable.

The current president of the United States lies all the time, about things both small and big. He lied before getting into politics and lied during the election. He entered politics lying about President Obama’s birthplace (a conspiracy theory called "birtherism"). Trump wasn't penalized for these lies and in fact was rewarded with election to the White House.

But of course, people will say, "All presidents lie." That is absolutely true—particularly during wartime, and some of these lies and secrets may be morally justifiable. But this sidesteps the issues of frequency, motivation, and impact. The current president lies more often, with baser motivations, and with a bigger impact than any of his predecessors. That's not my opinion. That's a fact based on evidence. This is a chilling development, especially when you consider the number of studies that show lying spreads like a disease through social networks.

Is lying becoming more culturally acceptable in the U.S.?

Because there is no way to objectively measure lying and tolerance for lying, this is a difficult question to answer. However, I think it is fair to say that recent election results are a pretty good, objective reflection of our culture's tolerance for lying. We certainly trust each other less. Since 1972, according to the National Opinion Research Center's General Social Survey, fewer and fewer Americans have agreed with the statement, "Most people can be trusted"—and the same survey finds less trust in our institutions. [Editor’s note: This survey has been conducted every two years since 1994 and annually for most years before that.]

In that context, we've also seen a lot more political and cultural polarization. Polarization isn't just about voting; political scientists and sociologists are finding that our party affiliation is linked to the kinds of beer and coffee we drink, the cars we drive, the media we consume, what we do in our spare time, and even who we choose to date and love. This polarization fuels resentment and anger, both very self-focused emotions that seem to encourage deceptive behavior, according to some studies.

What is most troubling for me is that some Americans are starting to define others as un-American for holding certain beliefs—for example, that gay men should be able to marry or that health care should be available to those who can't afford it. That's a very dangerous development, because when you pit "true Americans" against "un-Americans," you are putting the un-Americans outside the group. This opens the door to dehumanization, which legitimizes the use of deception and violence as instruments of intergroup competition.

How do we combat blue lies?

It is not easy to stop blue lies.

The first step is to stop them inside of yourself. It's really a question of not sleepwalking—of waking up and paying attention to what's happening inside of you and around you. You have to ask: What is my emotional reality? Describe it to yourself. Name that reality. That reality is completely valid, but then you need to take the next step, which is to measure those feelings against facts. That means making accuracy a goal. Verify information, especially when it seems to confirm your emotional reality. Search for different information sources. Share information only when it appears to be accurate—and admit to it when you fall short of that goal.

The next step is to cultivate a diverse social network; it's mostly a matter of making a special effort to stay in touch with family and old friends who are on different paths. Then we need to put critical distance between us and our groups. This is extremely difficult, because we depend on our groups for validation, recognition, and resources. If you do something that seems to undermine the group—like, for example, saying, hey, I don't think this story we tell ourselves is true—then you risk exile, which triggers a host of anxieties and can have real-world external consequences.

Humans aren't like other primates, in that we have access to many different groups and hierarchies. That's one of the things that makes us human, that social diversity. We're more than just Democrat or Republican, progressive or conservative. We're also spouses, siblings, children, and parents. We are alumni and employees and Christians and Jews and Muslims and Americans and humans. We're many things, not just one, and we have obligations to many different groups with many different kinds of people. What may help your political party may hurt your family, or your country.

We need to remember that human strength of social diversity when we feel like a group we’re a part of is moving in the wrong direction. It's easy to believe something when we're with the mob. It's really hard to turn around and face the mob and say, "Hey, I think that's wrong." But in Trump's America, Democrat or Republican, that's exactly what we need to do.

Also see How Power Corrupts Us.

Jeremy Adam Smith Image Credit: Tearsa Joy Hammock