This just in: Researchers have found that a good friend will lie for you, though it helps if you're in the room when they're asked to fib.
This tendency toward situational dishonesty is especially strong for friends who are high in empathy, presumably because they really feel your pain and want to help out. But the research also found that if the potential for embarrassment were bad enough, even strangers would cover for you.
"People put themselves in the shoes of the other person and say, 'I would want someone to lie on my behalf so I wouldn't look bad,'" study author Jennifer Argo, a professor at the Alberta School of Business, said in a statement. [10 Bad Things That Are Good For You]
It's no surprise that people lie to save face, but there had been much less research on people lying to cover for someone else. The researchers explored people's willingness to act as a somewhat dishonest "wingman" for their friends by asking 95 undergraduate students to read a scenario in which a person tells them about a car they just bought and how much they paid for it. In some versions, the person was described as a friend of the student. In others, the car buyer was a stranger. Half of the stories had the person buying the car for $20,000, while the others had him paying $18,200.
Next, the scenario had a third person step in and say they had bought the same make and model vehicle but paid just $18,000. The experiment participants were asked what price they would tell this third person that the first car buyer had paid; essentially asking if they would lie to keep the first car buyer from looking bad, since he or she sort of got swindled.
Unsurprisingly, participants were more willing to lie for a friend than for a stranger, the researchers reported in November in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology. But even for strangers, people would downplay what the person paid if they'd been cheated of $2,000.
A nearly identical follow-up study with 117 more students compared how willing people were to lie for a friend depending on both the friend's presence in the room and the person's own feelings of empathy. Being present instead of absent makes friends more willing to lie for you, the results showed. And, of course, the more empathy the friend felt, the more willing they were to fudge the truth.
"Based on the findings, it would seem reasonable to expect that people who understand their friends should be willing to step in as a wingman in a number of different contexts if their friends are in need," Argo said.
But researchers don't yet know if the fibs are double-edged swords. Perhaps if your friends know that you'll spin tall tales for them, they'll trust you less, Argo said.
"If you're lying and I know it, it might make me question or cause me to doubt how much you lie to me," she said.
Live Science newsletter
Stay up to date on the latest science news by signing up for our Essentials newsletter.
Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.