A Remarkable Benefit of Telling the Truth [1]

It’s a rare individual who gets through an entire day without telling a lie. Most are harmless, so-called “white lies” that are told to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. Others are bigger lies that are told to protect ourselves. It turns out that telling the truth when you’re tempted to lie can actually improve your mental and physical health.

On average, the typical American lies about 11 times a week. “We wanted to find out if living more honestly can actually cause better health,” said lead author Anita E. Kelly, a professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame. “We found that the participants could purposefully and dramatically reduce their everyday lies, and that in turn was associated with significantly improved health.”

The study: Over a 10-week period, 110 volunteers–34 percent of whom were adults in the South Bend, Indiana community and 66 percent of whom were college students–participated in an honesty experiment. They ranged in age from 18 to 71 years, with an average age of 31. The study sample was 63 percent women, 87 percent white, 4 percent black, 4 percent Hispanic, 3 percent Asian-American and 2 percent of another race. Annual family income for the participants was fairly evenly distributed over a range of less than $25,000 to more than $160,000.

Approximately half the participants were instructed to stop telling major and minor lies for 10 weeks. The other half served as a control group that received no special instructions about lying. Both groups came to the laboratory each week to complete health and relationship measures and to take a polygraph test assessing the number of major and white lies they had told that week.

The results: Over the course of 10 weeks, the link between less lying and improved health was significantly stronger for participants in the no-lie group.

For example, when participants in the no-lie group told three fewer white lies than they did in other weeks, they experienced, on average, about four fewer mental-health complaints, such as feeling tense or melancholy, and about three fewer physical complaints, such as sore throats and headaches.

In contrast, when control group members told three fewer white lies, they experienced two fewer mental-health complaints and about one less physical complaint. The pattern was similar for major lies.

Compared to the control group, participants in the more truthful group told significantly fewer lies across the 10-week study, and by the fifth week, they saw themselves as more honest, Kelly said. When participants across both groups lied less in a given week, they reported their physical health and mental health to be significantly better that week.

But something else happened when they told the truth more often. In weeks when participants told fewer lies, they reported that their close personal relationships had improved and that their social interactions overall had gone more smoothly that week. “Statistical analyses showed that this improvement in relationships significantly accounted for the improvement in health that was associated with less lying,” said co-author Lijuan Wang, who is a statistician.

Three ways to start telling the truth in everyday life:

1 — Tell others about your day without exaggerating.
2 — Stop making false excuses for being late or failing to complete tasks.
3 — Respond to a troubling question with another question; this works as a distraction so you aren’t put in a position to lie.

[1] http://webcenters.netscape.compuserve.com/whatsnew/default.jsp?story=20130105-0600