Author: Gail Heyman
Although disapproval of lying is widespread across human societies, people often carve out exceptions. We investigated one such case: when a lie is told to advance the interests of people that one is associated with. Lies that are told in these contexts are sometimes called blue lies because they resemble situations in which police officers, who typically wear blue uniforms in the United States, make false statements to protect fellow officers who are being investigated for misconduct.
We studied moral judgments about blue lies in China, where group loyalty is a strongly emphasized social value. Participants ranging in age from 9 to 17 heard about individuals who lied to conceal transgressions that were committed by members of groups the participant was associated with. The way the group was defined varied in scale: it was described as being comprised of individuals in either the participant's classroom, school, or country. For example, participants in one story were told about a volleyball match between high school teams representing China and the U.S. While watching the match, a Chinese protagonist realizes that one member of her team is actually a star college player rather than a high school student, but she lies when asked about it so that her team will look good and win the game.
We found that older children placed a greater emphasis on loyalty to larger and more abstract groups: 9- and 11-year olds were least critical of blue lies told to benefit a speaker’s class, 13-year olds were least critical of blue lies told to benefit a speaker’s school, and 17-year olds were least critical of blue lies told to benefit a speaker’s country. These findings suggest that young children initially develop a sense of loyalty toward individuals they know personally within small group settings, and that when children are older they begin to extend this sense of loyalty to larger groups. These results are consistent with the possibility that patriotism emerges as an extension of feelings that children first develop when interacting in small, close-knit groups.