Seinfeld is one of the most popular American TV shows, created by Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld. In one episode, George Costanza, the best friend of the main character, offered some advice about lying—some lies are not technically lies when taking into account the specific situation. Here is George’s list of 14 justified lies:
1. It’s not a lie if you believe it.
2. It’s not a lie if it doesn’t help you.
3. It’s not a lie if it hurts you.
4. It’s not a lie if it helps someone else.
5. It’s not a lie if it doesn’t hurt someone else.
6. It’s not a lie if everyone expects you to lie.
7. It’s not a lie if the other person knows the truth.
8. It’s not a lie if nobody can prove it.
9. It’s not a lie if you don’t get caught.
10. It’s not a lie if you don’t need to tell another lie to cover it up.
11. It’s not a lie if you were crossing your fingers.
12. It’s not a lie if you proceed to make it true.
13. It’s not a lie if nobody heard you say it.
14. It’s not a lie if nobody cares.
We were interested in whether people agreed with Costanza’s point of view. Do they justify these 14 behaviors? Do they believe lies are not technically lies if you don’t believe them, they don’t help you, and so on? To test these ideas, we made a short survey and released it through our “Sample Size Matters” App. Users indicated to what extent they agreed with each of George’s statements about lies on a scale of 1 to 7, 1 being strongly disagree and 7 strongly agree.
911 participants completed our survey, and, surprisingly, all of the statements were rated below a 4 (the mid-point of the scale), which means that people on average disagree with Costanza’s point of view. Additionally, the statements with the highest scores were “It is not a lie if you believe it” (mean=3.81) and “It is not a lie if you proceed it to make it true” (mean = 2.98).
Do these results suggest that people disagree with Costanza’s list of justified lies? Not necessarily. Our views about dishonesty may very well change depending on whether we’re the ones being dishonest—perhaps we believe these rules only when trying to justify our dishonesty.
Mazar, Amir and Ariely (2008) put forward a theory of dishonesty—individuals behave dishonestly enough to profit but honestly enough to maintain a sense of their own integrity. This is what they called the ‘self-concept maintenance theory’ and possibly explains Costanza’s rationalization.
At the end of our survey we asked participants to indicate what other situations they wouldn’t consider lying, and they came up with a lot of creative suggestions such as “It is not a lie if you miss the important details”, “It is not a lie if it is a joke or an irony”, “It is not a lie if it makes someone happy” and “It is not a lie if your salary or job depends on it.” Everyone could come up with at least one or two lies that are justified! Can you?
~Ximena Garcia Rada~
Mazar, N., Amir, O., & Ariely, D. (2008). The dishonesty of honest people: A theory of self-concept maintenance. Journal of marketing research, 45(6), 633-644.