Telling the truth works better than you might think

Research says we overestimate the risk of truthtelling.

  • A new study looks at assumptions that telling the truth is dangerous
  • Telling the truth and getting along are not mutually exclusive
  • Being more honest can lead to more enjoyable, better relationships

Lies happen all the time. Most often, they're meant to spare feelings or to avoid conflict, though sometimes they're delivered in malice, and meant to deceive. Still, mostly we don't intend anything underhanded in our lies. We're just looking to avoid uncomfortable conversations. New research by Emma Levine of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and Taya Cohen of Carnegie Mellon University looks at the effect honesty really has on human interaction, and discovers that we shouldn't be so afraid of it. Our negative assumptions about the cost of being truthful often overestimate its actual impact.

Afraid to tell the truth?

([Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH]/Shutterstock)

The study, called "You Can Handle the Truth: Mispredicting the Consequences of Honest Communication" involved three experiments aimed at assessing the impact of honesty and how that corresponds to our assumptions about its effect. For the purposes of the research, "honesty" is defined as "speaking in accordance with one's own beliefs, thoughts and feelings."

You'd think this is how we usually express ourselves, but alas, it's not the case. "We're often reluctant to have completely honest conversations with others," according to Levine, speaking with ChicagoBooth. "We think offering critical feedback or opening up about our secrets will be uncomfortable for both us and the people with whom we are talking." Instead, it turns out that not only are more open exchanges more enjoyable, the risks are often nowhere near what we assume. Most importantly, opportunities to make genuine human connections are lost when we don't tell the truth.

Three experiments in honesty

(Galina Barskaya/Shutterstock)

The first of the study's experiments tasked subjects with being as "completely" honest as they could manage for a period of three days. The second involved being honest while answering personal and potentially difficult questions in a conversation with someone close. The third required subjects to deliver uncomfortably negative comments to somebody with whom they have a close relationship. After each experiment, subjects were interviewed and asked to describe the consequences of their conversations. It all turned out much better than they expected.

It's largely those expectations that inhibit our truth-telling. Speaking to Quartz, Levine says, "As a result, people assume that honest conversations will be personally distressing and harm their relationships. In reality, honesty is much more enjoyable and less harmful for relationships than people anticipate."

The researchers see a few possible reasons for our reluctance to give honesty more of a try, including, first off, that we don't see other doing it that much. Another issue — and many of us have been bitten by this — is that people don't always let us know when we've said something that's given offense. We may have done damage to a relationship without even knowing it. Where this is a concern, we can always ask for feedback after saying something we can imagine might have been too truthful. Of course, you may not always get an honest answer. There's also the chance that a person's negative reaction doesn't occur immediately, but rather over time as they think about what you've said.

What the study means

The research suggests that it's much more likely the person you're talking to can handle the truth more than you might believe. Of their research, Levine and Cohen write, "Taken together, these findings suggest that individuals' avoidance of honesty may be a mistake. By avoiding honesty, individuals miss out on opportunities that they appreciate in the long-run, and that they would want to repeat."

LinkedIn meets Tinder in this mindful networking app

Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.

Getty Images
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.

No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.

Keep reading Show less

4 reasons Martin Luther King, Jr. fought for universal basic income

In his final years, Martin Luther King, Jr. become increasingly focused on the problem of poverty in America.

(Photo by J. Wilds/Keystone/Getty Images)
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Despite being widely known for his leadership role in the American civil rights movement, Martin Luther King, Jr. also played a central role in organizing the Poor People's Campaign of 1968.
  • The campaign was one of the first to demand a guaranteed income for all poor families in America.
  • Today, the idea of a universal basic income is increasingly popular, and King's arguments in support of the policy still make a good case some 50 years later.
Keep reading Show less

A world map of Virgin Mary apparitions

She met mere mortals with and without the Vatican's approval.

Strange Maps
  • For centuries, the Virgin Mary has appeared to the faithful, requesting devotion and promising comfort.
  • These maps show the geography of Marian apparitions – the handful approved by the Vatican, and many others.
  • Historically, Europe is where most apparitions have been reported, but the U.S. is pretty fertile ground too.
Keep reading Show less

Why I wear my life on my skin

For Damien Echols, tattoos are part of his existential armor.

  • In prison Damien Echols was known by his number SK931, not his name, and had his hair sheared off. Stripped of his identity, the only thing he had left was his skin.
  • This is why he began tattooing things that are meaningful to him — to carry a "suit of armor" made up the images of the people and objects that have significance to him, from his friends to talismans.
  • Echols believes that all places are imbued with divinity: "If you interact with New York City as if there's an intelligence behind... then it will behave towards you the same way."
Keep reading Show less