A new study conducted by researchers from the Alberta School of Business in cooperation with the University of Calgary suggests that, in many cases, people are willing to lie in order to help a close friend avoid embarrassment in a social situation. According to Jennifer Argo, most people will step in to help preserve or even enhance a friend’s social image or to save a friend from social embarrassment.
The investigators set out to determine which conditions would be necessary for most people to tell a direct lie in order to protect another person’s reputation. They discovered that it is very common for people to be willing to lie to keep a friend from looking foolish. The researchers dubbed their discovery the wingman theory, or the Barney Stinson principle, after the character portrayed by Neil Patrick Harris on the sitcom How I Met Your Mother. Like Harris’s character, many people are willing to wait in the wings and step forward with so-called white lies designed to help a friend look good.
According to Argo, “This is an instance when you don’t have the opportunity to make yourself look good, so somebody else does it for you.”
The study involved setting up a scenario in which a person is present when a friend comes face to face with an individual who paid less for the same new car. The researchers discovered that, even if the price difference was small, people were eager to lie to help a friend save face. Perhaps even more surprising, when the price difference was large, people were often willing to lie to help a stranger avoid looking foolish. According to Argo, participants reported that they identified with the person on the hot seat and lied because they would want someone to lie for them under the same circumstances.
The rule only held true when the chagrined friend was actually present, however. If the conversation occurred away from the friend, people were likely to lie for them only when the price difference was very large. Argo noted that a person’s willingness to dissemble on behalf of a friend was proportionate to the depth of the friendship involved. “If it’s the best friend, I think most people would lie, even at the risk of possibly being found out.”
Argo says that she believes that her findings can be generalized to apply to any situation in which a person perceives that a friend is in danger of being cast in a bad light. She speculates that the same principle may be behind the common practice of playing up a friend’s qualifications on a job recommendation or exaggerating a friend’s good points to a potential date.
Argo suggests that further study could shed light on the social cost to the friend who steps forth to take on the wingman role. For example, Argo wonders what effect the telling of the lie might have upon the beneficiary of the lie, speculating that the friend whose reputation was saved might later question the veracity and overall character of the wingman.