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Complete lies! (01/2024)

How to reconcile.

Text: Helena Zumsteg and Noƫmi Kern

If a lie is exposed, it can end friendships. Social psychologist Fanny Lalot researches how two people can maintain a relationship following a betrayal.

Man holds up a gigantic bouquet of flowers to a woman
Apology. (Image: University of Basel, AI-generated by Benjamin Meier)

Marie invites people to her birthday party, but her friend Hanna says she can’t come because she has the flu. A few days later, Marie finds out that Hanna went to the movies that evening. Lies like these are told for many different reasons in all areas of life — in families, romantic relationships, friendships and the workplace. “Of course, some people lie out of malice or because they’re only thinking about their own interests, but most people lie to avoid hurting someone or to protect them from a potentially painful truth,” says Fanny Lalot, a social psychologist who carries out research into moral and social behavior. The example above (in which the names have been changed) is taken from studies conducted by Lalot.

The researcher says that lying is even the polite thing to do in certain situations in our society. For example, we teach children to eat their grandmother’s soup and say that it tastes wonderful even if they don’t like it. How honest we are also depends on the relationship between the two people. “If I think the truth would mean the end of the relationship, I’m more likely to lie than if I know the other person is open to criticism or unpleasant conversations,” explains Lalot.

If Hanna had given the real reason why she couldn’t make it to Marie’s party, she might have upset her friend — and she didn’t want to take that risk. Is it better to lie? “The underlying intention does play a role, but the feeling experienced by the person being lied to is subjective. Her friend’s explanations after the fact may be no comfort to Marie. The lie has left her feeling hurt and betrayed.”

Although we all resort to white lies from time to time, we generally assume that others are telling the truth. If we realize this isn’t the case, it undermines our trust. If a deception is uncovered, the manner in which the relationship continues depends on both parties.

Those who are able to forgive enjoy better health.

Lalot lists four reactions exhibited by people who’ve been lied to: confrontation, cutting ties, revenge and forgiveness. “These reactions aren’t mutually exclusive. You can begin by confronting someone and then decide whether you can forgive them or want to cut ties altogether.” Relatively new relationships tend to end more frequently, whereas a long-term friendship binds people together. If you don’t want to abandon the relationship and have already invested a lot in it, you’re more likely to be prepared to forgive.

It isn’t always that easy. According to Fanny Lalot, whether someone forgives a lie or not has a great deal to do with their character and fundamental outlook on life: “It’s a question of the basic trust we have — or don’t have — in others. Some think that people can change and we all make mistakes. Others take the view that only bad people tell lies.”

Studies show that people who are better at forgiving enjoy better mental health than those who bear a grudge. The person who is found to be lying also has a role to play in facilitating restoring the ongoing relationship, firstly by showing regret and taking responsibility for their own actions. The second step is to openly ask for forgiveness, and the last is to offer to make amends. “This means that the person who was lied to regains control — they can decide for themselves what will happen to the relationship,” says the psychologist. Ultimately, they decide whether they can and want to forgive the other person or not.

Although Marie has forgiven Hanna, they aren’t as close as they used to be. As Lalot points out: “There can always be a lasting impact. It’s easier to lose someone’s trust than to build it back up.”

More articles in this issue of UNI NOVA (May 2024).

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