Is it better to be loyal or honest in your relationship?

Is it better to be loyal or honest in your relationship?

Susan Krauss Whitbourne is a professor of Psychology and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She writes the Fulfilment at Any Age blog for Psychology Today.

An old friend is in town on a trip that you’ve known about for months. Back when you made a date to get together for the evening, it seemed like a great idea. You definitely want to see this person, or at least you did at the time. Now that it’s getting closer to the actual event, you’re starting to regret having made those plans. Things have gotten hectic at work, and you’d like to take the evening to sit around in your sweats and binge watch that new program which just became available for streaming. 

Perhaps it’s not an evening out, but a lunch date on a weekday close by to where you work. The weather forecast is predicting a messy, rainy, day and you don’t think you’ll want to venture out any more than is necessary to get from home to the office. These situations present you with a classic dilemma: Do you tell the truth to your friend but risk the relationship or preserve the relationship by making up a legitimate-sounding excuse?

Testing the values of loyalty vs. honesty in moral judgments, Cornell University’s John Angus D. Hildreth and University of California Berkeley’s Cameron Anderson (2018) asked “Does loyalty trump honesty?” As they note, “Groups often demand loyalty, but all too often, loyalty can corrupt individuals to engage in deceit."

Among the list of possible deceptions that loyalty to organisations or causes can prompt is pretending to believe in something you don’t or overlooking bad behaviour by people who are a part of your group. A politician might downplay a fellow office-holder’s illicit activity, or a sales manager might turn a blind eye to the shoddy products that the company is putting out on the market. You might lie to help your team win in a competitive match. The deceptions involved in these instances have more serious consequences than those associated with lying to a friend to preserve the relationship, but the same underlying dynamic is at play in that honesty and loyalty operate at cross-purposes.

As the Cornell-Berkeley researchers go on to observe, most people view lying as unethical but may be more accepting when a lie is the result of a prosocial motive. In fact, they cite evidence that you’ll gain more trust from the people who know you if you have a reputation as a prosocial liar. A friend may overhear you saying to a mutual acquaintance that her new hairstyle looks great when, clearly, the cut and colour are all wrong. Your coming out with this slight untruth shows how much you value other people’s feelings. Such lies are preferable to lies that are intended to give you an advantage over other people in order to get ahead. When you tell someone she looks nice so that you can get her to do a favour for you, this is no longer a prosocial lie because you’re doing this to increase the odds of getting something you want.

However, when a lie isn’t just prosocial but a “loyal lie,” other people are likely to view you far more negatively. A lie that is intended to protect shady operations by a group of which you are a part comes closer to a self-serving lie than one that is altruistic, even though “loyal” implies some sort of higher purpose. There is a philosophical reason for this notion as well. Philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mills regard loyalty as “immoral” due to its “inherent partiality”. Because loyal lies benefit one’s group as well as oneself over others, they should be perceived as immoral by those who observe the lie being told. The liar, by contrast, sees no such problem and, in fact, feels “a moral imperative to act in the best interests of the group.” By not lying, the individual runs the risk of “negative social judgment, ostracism and social exclusion."

Putting these ideas to the test, Hildreth and Anderson conducted a series of four studies involving nearly 1400 participants involving both online surveys and laboratory experiments. In the online version of the test of the study’s hypotheses (later replicated with college students), participants read scenarios varying in the behaviour described by an individual who either lied or did not lie either to benefit their group in its competition with another group. The question was whether participants would regard deceit as unethical and immoral. In the condition involving loyalty and intergroup competition, participants perceived deceit as being relatively less unethical than in other conditions. However, participants rated loyal deceit (lying to benefit their group) as more unethical than disloyal honesty (being honest at the expense of one’s own group).

The research team placed college student participants in the experimental study similarly in conditions involving either intergroup competition or no competition. Here the question was whether or not they would lie when their loyalty was triggered. Rather than judging the morality and ethicality of others, then, participants judged their own behaviour.

As shown in prior studies, participants were more likely to lie when they thought it would help their own group. In general, they judged their own behaviour as less ethical when they lied compared to when they were honest. However, there was an important exception – when they lied to benefit their group, the participants did not see any ethical problem in their own behaviour. In fact, they actually saw their behaviour as slightly more ethical when they lied compared to when they told the truth.

As the authors concluded, “These individuals seemed to ground their self-perceptions in a morally pluralistic framework, focusing on loyalty above and beyond truthfulness as a critical moral dimension in this context” (p. 90). In other words, liars can compartmentalise enough to be able to justify their lying if it serves a purpose of protecting their group.

The final study in the series randomly assigned participants in the laboratory simulation to actor or observer role. As in the prior studies, loyal lies received the harshest judgments by observers, but not by the actors themselves.

To sum up, in answer to the article’s title, loyalty really does trump honesty in the view of the person committing the lie. Loyal liars don’t just rationalise their lying after the fact; instead, they have different standards for loyal lying than they do for honesty. Returning to the quandary you find yourself in when you feel you need to lie to get out of a prior obligation, the Cornell-Berkeley study suggests that it’s all too easy to slip into a mode where you see your lying as needed to protect your relationship. This may be fine on an occasional or extreme basis, but it’s quite likely that you can easily slip down that slope into habitual lying.

Rather than lie to protect your relationship, then, a dose of honesty may be needed even if it seems difficult at the time. Alternatively, perhaps you shouldn’t lie at all. If you’ve made a social commitment that now seems inconvenient, consider following through on it. You may have a much better time than you realised you would, and the loyalty you show toward those in your life might just provide the basis for more fulfilling relationships.

Written by Susan Krauss Whitbourne. Republished with permission of Psychology Today.