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Categories of Lies - White Lies, Grey Lies, and Black Lies

Categories of Lies

White Lies, Grey Lies and Black Lies


We currently live in a dystopian era of lies and deception; permeated with propaganda and censorship. Often it seems that people in positions of power and influence don't think the truth matters; and many seem incapable of telling the truth. 


The excuse that "everybody lies" is sometimes given as an excuse for deception - as if this has become a universal norm. This argument assumes that all lies are the same; and if all lies are the same and everybody lies, then effectively this argument implies that the truth doesn't matter. 

But of course, this twisted thinking is wrong. 
The truth matters a great deal, and people want and expect it.

But, it is also true that everybody lies. How can we reconcile this apparent contradiction?


This post will show that the excuse that "everybody lies" as justification for deception is misleading and wrong. 
All lies are not the same. 

Whether the lies are lies of commission, or omission - lies can be differentiated based on: their intent, consequences and public acceptability into 3 categories - white lies, grey lies and black lies. 

The truth is that it is benign white lies that are the ones that are prevalent and generally socially accepted. Depending on the circumstances and consequences, arguably most grey lies are not likely to be deemed acceptable by the majority of the public; and black lies are not accepted as a norm. Nor, in the interest of a peaceful functioning society should they become a norm.

At the heart of Lies

At the heart of lies are one or more truths which the liar is afraid will be exposed; along with the desire to manipulate others and stay out of trouble. 


Sin has many tools, but a lie is the handle which fits them all.
Oliver Wendell Holmes 

Bar benign white lies, in other instances lies, deceitful behaviour and secrecy become necessary because the hidden truth, if exposed - would: 
  1. Show that the liar has done, is doing, or plans to do something that would likely be perceived by others as: silly, stupid, disgusting, dishonest, disgraceful, corrupt, illegal, evil or otherwise unacceptable; and/or 
  2. Decrease or damage the liars stature or reputation; and/or 
  3. Would result in the liar being unable to obtain or keep something they want; and/or
  4. Would likely result in negative consequences for the liar that the liar does not want; and/or
  5. If the truth is known, it would prevent the victim from acting the way the liar wants. 
Knowing the truth about the liar's secrets often influences the victim's attitude toward the liar; and it can influence the victim's reaction in ways the liar does not want. 

Manipulation of the victims feelings, beliefs and behaviour is a core objective of liars.

Lies, other forms of deception, and secrecy - form the bodyguard for the dark secret truths liars want to hide.


"A concealed truth, that's all a lie is. Either by omission or commission we never do more than obscure. The truth stays in the undergrowth, waiting to be discovered."
- Josephine Hart

The thinking of the more Machiavellian liars and deceivers is essentially egotistical and focused on their wants and needs. They tend to think that they are entitled to do whatever is in their interests, regardless of the consequences on others. When caught out, they often shrug off the lies they use to cover-up what they have done, with the excuse that "everybody lies". This argument assumes that all lies are the same; and if all lies are the same and everybody lies, then effectively this argument implies that the truth doesn't matter.

As previously noted, this twisted thinking is wrong. The truth matters, and people want and expect it. But, it is also true that everybody lies. We will discuss how this apparent contradiction can be reconciled.

Intent, consequence, and public acceptability are major distinguishing factors between the major categories of lies.


This post will use these factors to categorise types of lies. As with all category systems, there may be some cross-over in characteristics - but, for the purpose of this post we will use a classification system of lying as follows:

2 types of lies:

1. Lies of Commission
2. Lies of Omission, and

3 categories of lies:

1. White lies
2. Grey Lies
3. Black Lies

But first, some basic background on lying.

What are Lies?


One of the more amusing references on lying and deceit is the book by Jane F Gilgun, called: On Being a Shit / Unkind Deeds & Cover-ups in Everyday Life.

Lies are misrepresentations used as a means of creating false impressions, managing impressions, or covering up actions - in order to influence the thoughts and actions of others. Individuals who lie know what the truth is, and want to conceal it.

A lie has 3 main features:

  1. A lie communicates or hides information
  2. The liar knows the truth.
  3. The liar intends to deceive in order to influence the audience to believe something that is not true - so that subsequent impressions, decisions and actions on the part of the victim(s) or others will be in the liar's favour.

Information provided when lying is not always untrue.


"A truth that's told with bad intent beats all the lies you can invent."
William Blake

Lies (particularly political lies) commonly involve part-truths; or truth that is taken out of context; or truth presented in other misleading ways, in order to deceive the audience - with the intent to influence what the audience believes, and consequently, what they will do. Half truths tend to be the more diabolical of lies, because they are so misleading.


"A half truth is a whole lie."
Yiddish Proverb

A half-truth usually involves a deceptive statement or image that includes some element of truth: 
  1. It might be partly true (but what is left out or what is picked to say or show is misleading); or 
  2. It may be totally true, but only part of the whole true story, and is misleading because the information was provided out of the correct context; or 
  3. It may employ a deceptive element which serves to imply something is a fact or true when that is not the case; such as the deliberate mis-use of punctuation; or the use of words with a double meaning; or the use of qualifying (weasel) words; or the manipulation of an image.
The deceptive nature of half truths or truths out of context is such that courts rightfully demand the "whole" truth.

Untrue information is not always a lie.


Not everything which is said or written that is wrong or untrue is a lie. This is because people may be misinformed, and may say something untrue in error. In addition, people interpret information differently - and may say something they believe to be true based on their interpretation of information - that is actually false. 

The intent to deceive is fundamental to lying.

"Like all valuable commodities, truth is often counterfeited."

James Cardinal Gibbons

The fundament issue in lying is whether or not there is an underlying desire to deceive and/or manipulate others through the use of lies, deception and secrecy.

Lying is commonly motivated by a desire of the liar to hide wrong-doing; or acquire something they want; or to prevent someone else from getting something, or to cause others harm. However lying is also sometimes done to entertain or to protect others. While motivation may vary - in each situation involving lies, the intent is to deceive and thereby influence the victim's belief and behaviour.

Learning to Lie


"Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive."
Sir Walter Scott 


Along with other verbal skills, human beings learn to lie from an early age. By around the age of 2-3 children start to tell "stories". At this age, toddlers don't have a real grasp of the difference between wishes, fantasies, fears and reality - so these untruths are not really lies.

By about age 4 children know the difference between truth and a lie; and have learned (likely by observation) to tell self-serving lies.

When children begin to lie purposely, there may be a variety of reasons (many of which tend to also be behind lies in later life), such as:
  • To play with you;
  • Because they thinks it is funny;
  • To gain control over you or a situation;
  • To avoid punishment;
  • To cast blame on someone else;
  • Because of fear or anxiety;
  • To avoid doing something they do not want to do; or
  • Because of jealousy.
Between age 5-8 children tend to tell more lies to test what they can get away with - but they are not necessarily convincing.

Provided they have been getting a good example; between age 9 to 12, children should be well on their way to establishing a trustworthy, and conscientious identity. They know the difference between right and wrong and are aware that their actions can have consequences on others besides themselves. They learn that lying or deceiving others may result in punishment. They also learn that lying and deceiving others may result in avoiding punishment.

By the time they reach their teens, when children lie, they are often as adept as adults, and will lie for similar reasons.

Because honesty is so vital to trusting relationships (and the ability to obtain and hold a job) - it is important that honesty be taught and encouraged from an early age - and that parents and other members of the family lead by a good example.

http://www.parents.com/kids/development/behavioral/age-by-age-guide-to-lying/

http://learningdisabilities.about.com/od/infancyandearlychildhood/tp/lyingchildren.htm

There are 2 main types of lies:


1. Lies of Commission
“Her words were like tinfoil; they shone and they covered things up.” 
- Helen Cross

This type of lying involves falsification of information, or providing information in a deliberately misleading manner - with the intent to trick the person(s) / audience being lied to into believing something that is not true - and, consequently influence how the victim feels or thinks about something, so that the victim will do (or not do) something that the liar wants.

Lies of commission may involve the liar making up something that is untrue (entirely or partly); or manipulating the presentation of information in order to mislead. Half truths are lies of commission.

Lies of commission also include physically altering evidence of the truth; such as the use of fraudulent signatures; or actions to make it appear as if someone else has done something wrong; and it includes false or misleading statements and actions to hide the fact that the liar or someone they are protecting did something wrong etc.

Advertising spin and propaganda typically utilise lies of commission. Fraudsters, thieves, and those engaged in corrupt, violent, or wrongful acts often utilise lies of commission. Lies of commission are also used to hide secrets involving relationships and many other things.

Not all lies of commission are related to dastardly deeds. Lies about Santa Claus or how someone looks are also lies of commission.

2. Lies of Omission


"The cruelest lies are often told in silence."
Adlai Stevenson


Lies of omission involve concealment of information. Individuals withhold all or part of the truth knowing this is likely to create a false impression; or deny the truth; or destroy evidence of the truth - with the intent to mislead and/or manipulate.

Secrecy, denial and stonewalling


 “No denial of the truth will ever invalidate it.” 
- Nikki Rosen

Secrecy, denial and stonewalling are lies of omission. This may include partly or entirely destroying or hiding evidence of the truth; actively denying the truth; or using tricks to avoid providing information or to avoid answering questions that have been asked in order to obtain the truth about a matter. 


“When truth is replaced by silence,the silence is a lie.” 
- Yevgeny Yevtushenko

Part truths


"A lie which is a half truth is ever the blackest of lies."
- Alfred Lord Tennyson

Part truths - whereby only part of the truth is presented and significant information is withheld, in order to "frame" the matter being manipulated, so as to mislead the audience - is a type of a lie of omission.

Mental Reservations


Every lie has 2 parts - the lie we tell others and the one we  tell ourselves to justify it.

Mental reservations are another important form of lies of omission. With mental reservation, the liar divides a statement into 2 parts. The qualifying second part is a "fingers crossed" omitted condition which must be present for the first part to be true. Bizarre and irrelevant as the qualifying condition might be - it is typically offered as the magic secret condition in which the lie was not really a lie - if the liar is challenged.

The use of mental reservation is a common form of "fingers crossed" political lying, but is also used in other contexts.

The 2 parts together are true, but the first part when said aloud (and not in context with the omitted second part), on it's own, is misleading.
Examples of Mental Reservation lies:
  • "I don't cheat on my wife" [unsaid qualifying 2nd part - "on Sundays"]
  • "I didn't take the milk money" [unsaid qualifying 2nd part - "this week"]
  • "No one told me that X donated X thousands of dollars" [unsaid qualifying second part - "I wasn't told it verbally, I read the report"]
This type of lying is used as an "escape" clause - because if accused of lying later - such liars tend to claim that what they said was true, under certain qualifying conditions.

Redaction


Redaction involves removing or blacking out selected data from documents. These omissions serve to hide what went on; and often the remaining visible data, read out of context may be misleading, or make no sense at all. Redaction, with the use of subtraction of information with the intent to conceal wrong-doing or mislead is a form of lie of omission. 

Redaction can also be a lie of commission, if a new document is created that excludes relevant data (as if it did not exist); and the selected data included in the new document is framed to cover-up the truth or otherwise mislead the victim.

Front organisations

The use of front organisations or front businesses are forms of lies of omission.

Front organisations are used by corrupt industries, political groups, governments and criminals etc to create a false impression that information or a service is being provided by an unbiased, independent, genuine organisation - when the truth is that this is a misleading illusion - and their purpose is to mislead and influence behaviour.


Astroturfing refers to fake "grass roots" - individuals, groups or "front" organizations  - that are actually primarily conceived, created and funded by corporations, industry, trade associations, political interests, the military or spy organizations or contractors and public relations firms; or funded by those with a financial interest in these organizations. These fake grass root individuals, movements and front organizations are used as a tool to trick the public into thinking that a large number of grass root members of the public or an apparent "expert" organization supports the idea or product being astroturfed. 

Examples of lies of omission would include:
  • a car salesman failing to mention to a customer that the car the customer is interested in leaks oil, even though the salesman knows this; or
  • a politician failing to mention that a bill that he is supporting is in the interest of a corporation that has directly or indirectly made (or promises to make) a major contribution to his or her political campaign; or
  • a government hiding information about exposure of the population to radiation or other harmful substances; or
  • a newspaper producing an article from material solely or predominantly derived from a government department or corporation - and, like a front organisation, presenting biased data to the public, while creating the false impression that the information presented is independent and impartial.
  • a supposed non-governmental media organisation which is overtly or covertly government funded, whose actual purpose is dissemination of government propaganda
  • denying the existence of data or hiding or deleting data that would provide evidence of wrong doing
Lies of omission, similar to lies of commission cover a wide range of deceitful behaviours intended to manipulate the thoughts, decisions and behaviour of others.

Now we will analyse lies into categories based on the intent, consequence and public acceptability of lies. After this, I think you will understand that the statement "Everybody lies" is misleading - and does not serve as an acceptable excuse for significant acts of deception.

Three Categories of Lies based on: Intent, Consequence, and Public Acceptability




"Those who think it is permissible to tell white lies soon grow colour blind."
Austin O'Malley


White Lies


White lies are primarily focused on protecting the recipient of the lie, or to entertain - and are generally socially acceptable.

These are the types of lies people talk about when they say: "Everybody Lies". 
They are the most common type of lies.

The distinguishing thing about "White Lies" is that the intent of "White Lies" is to entertain; or to protect the person who is the recipient of the lie; or it constitutes a harmless exaggeration which the liar does not expect the recipient to take seriously. There is no malicious intent to deceive behind white lies.

White lies are typically inconsequential. They may in some instances be tactful but inaccurate statements intended to be beneficial to the recipient's self-esteem, or self-confidence, or to foster positive interpersonal relationships (or avoid hurt feelings). Sometimes white lies are used to encourage good behaviour.

Puffery is an exaggerated claim typically found in advertising, such as "whiter than white". Such statements are unlikely to be true; and such obvious un-harmful exaggeration in advertising is generally accepted as white lies.

While there are those who decry even white lies; claiming that creating a false illusion of any sort is harmful to the victim's right to make accurately informed decisions - the public generally accepts inconsequential white lies as "normal", if not a necessity, in order for people to get along and maintain positive relationships.

Examples of White Lies:
  • "I'm fine". [vs the truth such as - "George has left me. Sally's pregnant, and I'm going to be laid off next week" - said to avoid laying personal burdens on another]
  • "You'd better be good, or Santa Claus won't come." [Benign bribery to encourage good behaviour]
  • "Yes dear, your hair looks great - just like Marilyn Monroe" [If Marilyn Monroe had grey frizzy hair - but the liar wants the recipient to feel good]
  • "Thanks so much. It's so different. I just love it!" [vs "OMG, what IS this thing; and who can I give it to?" because the recipient does not want to hurt the feelings of the person who gave them the gift.]
  • "I'm 29." [vs was 29 fifteen years ago]
  • "Man that sucker was 10 feet long." ['The one that got away' exaggeration stories tend to grow with each re-telling - with little or no expectation that they will be literally believed.]
  • "Didn't you get an invitation. I sent it last week." [vs because they were forgotten or were intentionally not invited.]
  • "I'll be there in a minute" [vs "Will you stop pestering me. I'll get there when I'm ready".]
Lies told to protect another represent a grey area. When such lies do not benefit the liar but prevent an innocent person from being harmed by another (eg in family violence situations) - these are likely to be publicly acceptable - and constitute white lies. 

But lies told to protect a person, who has done wrong (whether criminal or not) are usually not socially acceptable - and may constitute a grey or even a black lie, depending on the circumstances.

Lies told in jokes are generally not expected to be believed, and are just intended to entertain. Most jokes of this type are regarded as white lies. 

But, some jokes also intentionally or unintentionally foster bigotry and hate; or may be deemed by some as overly crude, sexist and offensive - and consequently such jokes are often not socially acceptable. Such jokes fit better in the category of grey or black lies.

White Lies - In summary:

  1. The intent of a white lie is to benefit the recipient (not the liar); and,
  2. The consequences are minor (and in some instances may be positive); and
  3. White lies are generally publicly acceptable.

Grey Lies


Grey lies are primarily focused on protecting the interests of the liar, and may or may not be socially acceptable.


Grey lies typically relate to relatively minor matters. The fundamental differences between a white lie and a grey lie are that: unlike the white lie which is focused on benefiting the recipient of the lie - the intent of a grey lie is usually to protect the interests of the liar. Grey lies are not in the interest of the victim.

As with all lies, the intent is to deceive the victim and hide a truth - and as a result of the lie, influence the victim to believe something and act (or not act) in a certain way.

While the intent behind grey lies is self-interest, grey lies are not intended to cause malicious or serious harm to the victim and don't incidentally cause this.

However, if the truth is discovered, there are often negative repercussions for the liar of grey lies. This motivates such liars to hide the truth. If the truth of these minor offences becomes known by another, the threat of exposure can be used to manipulate the liar's behaviour.

Depending on the intended or unintended consequences of grey lies - grey lies may or may not be socially acceptable. Most grey lies generally are not socially acceptable.

Some (but not all) forms of advertising and public relations spin satisfy the criteria for grey lies. 

Examples of Grey Lies
  • "I can't come into work day because I'm sick with the flu." [vs. the liar intends to sit at home watching the final series of a sports match on TV. The employer and fellow employees are inconvenienced.]
  • "We'll be working late again tonight." [over a glass of wine with the new female employee. It's not an affair - but it's not something the liar's wife would like at all.]
  • "I can't repay you this week Sam. Too many bills." [But not too many bills to prevent the liar from going to the pub each night.]
  • "But I returned your ladder 2 weeks ago." [Because to admit you loaned the ladder to someone else is liable to cause a ruction].
  • "Yes I am an experienced in nursing elderly patients" [vs. "I haven't nursed in 15 years, but I do make tea for Mom." Because the liar wants the job and has rationalized to herself that her experience is good enough.]
  • "He's in a meeting." [vs. He does not want to see Mr. X today.]


Grey Lies - In summary:

  1. The intent of a grey lie is to benefit the liar (not the victim); and,
  2. The consequences tend to be relatively minor such as inconvenience or irritation.
  3. Public acceptability will largely depend on the specific circumstances and the intended or unintended consequences.

Black Lies


Black lies are primarily focused on protecting the interests of the liar. They cause harm; and they are not socially acceptable.


Black lies are lies told to protect the interests of the liar or the liar's cronies; to obtain something the liar wants to obtain, or wants to keep; to discredit a competitor; or to harm someone in some way.

Black lies often occur in conjunction with secrecy and cover-ups.

Black lies are very focused on the liar's interests. All black lies have potential (or actual) moderate to severe negative consequences on other people.

Black lies are frequently told to hide wrong-doing and to protect the liar from trouble likely to arise if the full truth were known about a core secret or secrets.

The lies are to protect the secrets, and to further any related objectives.

Like malevolent spiders - liars of black lies often draw others into their web of deceit.
Black lies are corrupting. Once this type of lying starts it tends to require more lies (and more liars) to support the underlying core secrets that require the lies.


The lies come to resemble the layers of an onion - as layers of lies, deception and secrecy are used to protect the major core secrets.


Like all lies, black lies involve an underlying secret that is hidden with lies, deception and secrecy. Liars of black lies particularly fear being found out in their lies because this can result in negative consequences for them. This makes them quite susceptible to blackmail and other perverse pressures to act in the interests of those who know their dark secrets.

Once the liar has been forced to act in the interest of the person who knows the truth behind their black lies, the liar's subsequent actions may then also need to be kept secret - creating a need for more lies and wrong-doing.

This is why black lies (and some grey lies) by people of power and influence (particularly politicians) are a potential danger to the public interest, and commonly disgust the public - who expect their leaders to be a good example - and to be honest and trustworthy.

The black lies of politicians and other people working in government or any position of public trust who have power or influence, represent a potential substantial danger to the public good. Abuse of knowledge of the secret truth behind black lies have been used by criminals, government agencies and others to subvert the actions of people in positions of power, knowledge and influence for centuries.

Examples of Black Lies:
  • "The car's a real deal. It was owned by an 80 year old who only drove it to get the groceries" [vs. the truth that the car was used by a taxi driver, and the mileage was cranked back]
  • (Said to the wife or husband) "I've got to go to 'X' for a week again, to do more work on that deal" [vs the truth that the liar is having an affair, and does not want the spouse to find out because it's likely to lead to an acrimonious and expensive divorce.]
  • Lying to hide the fact that the liar has stolen money or property or defrauded someone.
  • Lying to hide acts of perversion or violence.
  • Lying to prevent someone else from getting some sort of benefit, or to cause someone physical or other harm.
  • Lying and otherwise acting deceptively in order to delude the public into believing false promises so as to get elected.
  • Propaganda, to deceive the public, in order to prevent the public from objecting to government actions (past, present or planned).
  • Lying or manipulating evidence to set someone up so they will be convicted of a crime they did not commit. 
  • Deliberately setting up circumstances so that the victim(s) will unintentionally commit some sort of violation, so they can be ticketed or otherwise penalised to get quota numbers up.




Black Lies - In summary:


  1. The intent of a black lie is to benefit the liar (not the victim); and,
  2. The consequences or potential consequences of black lies tend to be substantial on the victim(s).
  3. The consequences or potential consequences on the liar, if the truth behind the black lies is found out - may be substantial. This often motivates such liars to go to great lengths to hide the truth. 
  4. Some others who learn the hidden truth behind black lies can use this knowledge to blackmail or exert perverse influence over the actions of the liar. (The ability to manipulate a liar due to knowledge of the truth behind black lies is one of the principle threats of spying. It has has been used by criminals, black-mailers and government agencies for decades, if not centuries to get such liars to do what they want.)
  5. Black lies are not accepted by the public.

In conclusion:


  • There are lies of commission and lies of omission.
  • Lies can be categorised into: white lies, grey lies and black lies - based on intent, consequence and public acceptability.
  • The statement that "everybody lies" generally refers to white lies.
  • At the heart of grey lies and black lies in particular, are one or more truths which the liar is afraid will be exposed; along with the desire to manipulate the thoughts and behaviour of the victim(s) of lies.
  • Many, if not most grey lies, and all black lies are not socially acceptable.

The truth matters; 

and, bar white lies, the truth is expected.



Some additional quotes on Lies



"If you tell the truth you don't have to remember anything."
Mark Twain

“But keeping secrets is a discipline. I never used to think of myself as a good liar, but after having had some practice I had adopted the prevaricator's credo that one doesn't so much fabricate a lie as marry it. A successful lie cannot be brought into this world and capriciously abandoned. Like any committed relationship it must be maintained, (and with far more devotion than the truth, which carries on being carelessly true without any help.) By contrast, my lie needed me as much as I needed it, and so demanded the constancy of wedlock: Till death do us part.” 
- Lionel Shriver

"He who permits himself to tell a lie once, finds it much easier to do it a second and third time, till at length it becomes habitual; he tells lies without attending to it, and truths without the world's believing him. This falsehood of the tongue leads to that of the heart, and in time depraves all its good dispositions."
- Thomas Jefferson

 “The term propaganda rings melodramatic and exaggerated, but a press that—whether from fear, careerism, or conviction—uncritically recites false government claims and reports them as fact, or treats elected officials with a reverence reserved for royalty, cannot be accurately described as engaged in any other function.” 
- Glenn Greenwald