There are lies, and then there are white lies, the gentle untruths we use to, say, spare the feelings of a friend who’s just asked how her new haircut looks. (I love it! Honestly!) But it seems there is a third, often overlooked category of deception: “blue lies,” a term recently highlighted by Scientific American. Psychology researchers use it to describe “lying in the name of the collective good,” and understanding this form of deceit can help us better navigate this weird new world of alternative facts, where it seems like people in power can lie, and it doesn’t matter.
In a recent column for the Toronto Star, for example, writer Daniel Dale quotes a Trump supporter named James Cassidy, who understands — but does not care — that the president was not telling the truth in a series of Saturday-morning tweets earlier this month about former president Barack Obama “wire tapping” Trump Tower. “He’s ruffling every feather in Washington that he can ruffle,” Cassidy told Dale. “These guys are scrambling. So: yeah! I like it. I think it’s a good thing. I want to see them jump around a little bit.”
We tell blue lies, or we tacitly accept them, when we want to advance our own group — whether that’s our political party or favorite sports team — at the expense of another. At work, for instance, you might lie to your angry boss on behalf of a colleague in order to save your department’s reputation. Or a basketball player might help cover up a cheater, to give their team an advantage. Where white lies draw people together, their blue cousin pulls together people in the same group, while at the same time driving others away, according to the research. (The reason they’re called blue lies, by the way, is because there’s a common belief that police officers, dressed in their blue uniforms, may sometimes lie to protect their own force. Make of that what you will.)
One thing to know: Blue lies are everywhere, University of Toronto psychologist Kang Lee told Science of Us. Lee co-authored a 2008 study published in the journal Developmental Science, which argued that blue lies are “pervasive” in the adult world, particularly across sports, business, and politics. For instance, undercover intelligence officials might lie, but they’d do so for the sake of a nation’s national security. As children, we grow up hearing about this kind of deceit in stories, writer Jeremy Adam Smith explains in Scientific American:
Around the world, children grow up hearing stories of heroes who engage in deception and violence on behalf of their in-groups. In Star Wars, for example, Princess Leia lies about the location of the “secret rebel base.” In the Harry Potter novels (spoiler alert!), the entire life of double-agent Severus Snape is a lie, albeit a “blue” one, in the service of something bigger than himself.
But they’ve also been used throughout history to undermine enemy groups, by fomenting an “us versus them” mentality. As Smith writes, it’s not necessary that members of a group believe the lies. In the case of Trump, Lee argues that the plausibility of his untruths — from his claims that he won the popular vote to the wiretapping accusations — just doesn’t really matter. The reason Trump gets away with them, Lee explained, is because they’re targeted at his supporters’ opponents, such as Obama and the Democrats. “A lot of people love these lies,” Lee said. “They know they’re not true, but they think, Let’s just have fun with it — yes, it’s a lie but it makes the Democrats look bad, so I’m okay with it.” And the more threatened a group feels, the more accepting it tends to be of blue lies. “Because when you feel your group is under threat, you feel you have to resort to any means necessary,” Lee explained. “The more you feel under threat, the more you want to put others down, the more likely you are to use blue lies.”
It’s important to remember that this is true regardless of your political leaning. As one study recently suggested, when people are deciding how much to trust a news story, they place more weight on who shared it on social media than the media outlet it originated from. Group identity matters, to put it mildly. But Smith suggests one way to push back against the lure of blue lies. “[T] most important and difficult thing we can do right now,” he writes, “… is to put some critical distance between us and our groups—and so lessen the pressure to go along with the herd.” Not an easy thing to do, but an important one.