Truth a Prescription for Better Health?

By Sheryl Nance-Nash on August 7, 2012 7:05 AM EDT

Pinocchio
New research says lying less may be linked to better health. (Photo: Polyvore)

Your mother told you that it's better to always tell the truth. Turns out she's right. Telling the truth when you have the urge to just tell a big fat lie can significantly improve your mental and physical health, so says the "Science of Honesty" study presented at the American Psychological Association's 120th Annual Convention.

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"Recent evidence indicates that Americans average about 11 lies per week. We wanted to find out if living more honestly can actually cause better health," said lead author Anita Kelly, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame, in a prepared statement. "We found that the participants could purposefully and dramatically reduce their everyday lies, and that in turn was associated with significantly improved health."

Kelly and Notre Dame co-author Lijuan Wang, PhD, conducted the honesty experiment over 10 weeks with a sample of 110 people, 34 percent of whom were adults in the community and 66 percent were college students. Ages ranged from 18-71.

How did it work? Half the participants were asked to stop telling major and minor lies for the 10 weeks. The rest were the control group and received no special instructions about lying. Both came to the lab each week to complete health and relationship measures and to take a polygraph test assessing the number of major and and white lies they had told that week.

During the experiment, the link between less lying and improved health was significantly stronger for participants in the no-lie group, the study found. When participants in the no-lie group told three fewer white lies than they did in other weeks, they experienced an average about four fewer mental-health complaints, such as feeling tense or melancholy, and about three fewer physical complaints, such as sore throats and headaches, the study found. In contrast, when the control group members told three fewer white lies, they experienced two fewer mental-health complaints and about one less physical complaint. The pattern was similar for major lies, Kelly said.

When both groups lied less in a given week, they reported their physical health and mental health to be significantly better that week. Better still, when they lied less, they said their close personal relationships had improved and that their social interactions overall had gone more smoothly that week, the study revealed. "Statistical analysis showed that this improvement in relationships significantly accounted for the improvement in health that was associated with less lying," said Wang, in a prepared statement.

When all was said and done, participants in the no-lie group described their efforts to keep form lying to others in their day-to-day interactions. Some said they realized they could simply tell the truth about their daily accomplishments rather than exaggerate, while others said they stopped making false excuses for being late or failing to complete tasks, Kelly said. Others said that they learned to avoid lying by responding to a troubling question to distract the person.

What's the morale of this story?  If you can't always tell the truth, don't lie.

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