Editor's note: This article is part of the Deseret News' annual Ten Today series, which explores the relevance of the Ten Commandments in modern life.
SALT LAKE CITY — Be honest: Was your last sick day more about relaxing than battling a cold or the flu?
If so, you're likely one of the 6 in 10 Americans who believe it’s OK to phone in "sick" when you're not.
It’s the sort of untruthfulness that many Americans consider a white lie — an acceptable stretching of truth's boundaries. A new survey from the Deseret News shows that Americans are increasingly accepting of white lies, whether we’re exaggerating to make a story more interesting or posting edited photos on social media.
Do you think that lying in this situation is ok?loading...SUBMIT You and 0% of participants
nationwide answered " n/a." NextBut we're not all lying at the same rate. The more religious people are, the less likely they are to believe lying is acceptable across a spectrum of scenarios.
And sorry, guys, but it appears that women consider honesty more important than men.
The online survey, conducted March 10-13 by YouGov and Y2 Analytics, asked respondents to decide if it is “often OK,” “sometimes OK” or “never OK” to be untruthful in nine situations ranging from cheating on taxes, to posting edited photos on social media, to lying to your child about your past misbehavior.
The findings reveal a morally fractured America in which honesty is not a one-size-fits-all value, but instead is considered important in some areas of life, much less so in others.
Take, for example, the matter of paying taxes. More than 8 in 10 Americans believe it's never OK to lie on a tax return. Among women, that number is even higher: 91 percent.
But when it comes to telling a story to family or friends, only 44 percent of us believe it’s important to get every fact straight.
And more than half of us say it's sometimes or often OK to lie our kids if they ask if we ever smoked a cigarette or got an "F" in a class.
The findings show that many Americans aren't beholden to the popular maxim “Honesty is the best policy," nor to millennia-old teachings of philosophers and saints who believed that honesty is a virtue on which all others are built.
But even the saints said that all lies are not equal. Some lies are told to entertain others, not to hurt them. And even the most virtuous among us may lie enthusiastically when confronted with a friend's new haircut or dress.
"It's not that easy to be honest," concedes Sharon K. Stoll, director of the Center for Ethics at the University of Idaho in Moscow, Idaho.
The poll was comprised of 1,000 Americans, plus an additional 250 people who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It was part of the Deseret News' annual Ten Today project examining the relevance of the Ten Commandments to modern life.
In the nine scenarios respondents were asked to consider, more than 8 in 10 Americans said it was never OK to cheat on taxes or to lie to a partner or spouse about an affair.
Slightly fewer — more than 7 in 10 — said it was never OK to lie to a child's teacher to protect the child's grades, and to make yourself appear to be 10 years younger in an online dating profile.
And about 6 in 10 said it was never acceptable to present staged or edited photos on social media as if they were impromptu and untouched, or to embellish a resume to get a job.
After that, the moral playing field got muddier as the lies got whiter.
More than half of Americans believe it’s sometimes or often OK to lie to children about a parent’s past misbehavior, and 57 percent say it’s sometimes or often acceptable to exaggerate facts to make a story more interesting.
And on the matter of those — ahem — “sick” days, more of us are likely to take liberties than to hold to a doctor’s standard of illness.
While 40 percent of Americans said it’s never OK to call in sick if you’re not, 50 percent said it’s sometimes OK, and 10 percent said it’s often OK.
Tiffany Anderson of Salt Lake City said she occasionally took a “mental health day” when she was working for the Summit County Health Department, taking advantage of a generous benefits package.
But Anderson, now a wellness coach and massage therapist, said she could justify using the sick day because it was the equivalent of preventive medicine. “Stress is at the root of so many diseases, and the No. 1 complaint I hear from my massage clients is that they are so stressed, and physically, they feel the tension.”
People may be more likely to justify white lies if they believe there's a good reason for the falsehood: Without a day off, the stress will cause me to get sick. A family excursion is more important than another day sitting at a desk. Or, I really need this job to support my family.
But people who profess a strong religious faith are less likely to find justifications that make lying OK.
Evangelical Protestants and Mormons, for example, are more likely to say that lying is never OK in any scenario except for lying to protect a child’s grade.
And, regardless of denominational affiliation, people who say they are highly religious are less comfortable with lying of any kind than people who profess medium or low religiosity.
For example, 91 percent of highly religious people say it is never OK to lie about an affair to your spouse, compared to 83 percent of people with low religiosity. And nearly 6 in 10 religious people say it's not acceptable to call in sick when you're not, compared to 23 percent of people who aren't religious.
How things have changed
The Deseret News poll asked six questions about honesty that were also included in a 2006 survey conducted by the Associated Press and Ipsos. The new findings show that Americans' willingness to lie in these scenarios has expanded — in some cases by more than 20 percentage points.
In 2006, 59 percent of Americans said it was never OK to lie to a child about a parent's past misbehavior; in 2018, 48 percent of parents said the same.
Similarly, in 2006, 56 percent said it was never OK to exaggerate facts to make a story more interesting, compared to 44 percent today.
And in 2006, 93 percent of Americans said it was never OK to cheat on your taxes. Eighty-four percent of Americans said the same in 2018.
The biggest changes that occurred over 12 years were job-related: the number of Americans who believe it's OK to lie on a resume or to take a "mental-health day" at work.
In 2006, 88 percent of us said it was never OK to lie on a resume, compared to 63 percent of us today. And 12 years ago, 66 percent said it was never OK to call in sick when you're not, compared to 40 percent today.
The only area in which there was little change between 2006 and 2018 was lying to a spouse or partner about an affair. The percentage of people who said lying about infidelity is never OK also declined over 12 years, but by a smaller percentage: from 90 percent in 2006 to 87 percent today.
Differences between genders
In each of the nine scenarios presented in the Deseret News survey, more women than men said lying was “never OK.”
On some items, the genders were only separated by a few percentage points; for example, 42 percent of women said it was never OK to use a sick day when you’re not sick, compared to 39 percent of men.
But in three areas, men were significantly less likely than women to value honesty: exaggerating a story (38 percent to 49 percent); cheating on taxes (76 percent to 91 percent), and embellishing a resume (55 percent to 71 percent).
Men are also more accepting of lying to a partner or spouse about an affair. Eighty-three percent of men said lying about an affair was never OK, compared to 90 percent of women.
'A downward trend'
Stoll, the ethicist at the University of Idaho, acknowledged "a downward trend" in Americans' honesty in the past few decades. But, she said, "At the same time, we have to understand that a rigid code of complete honesty will make you an individual nobody wants to be around."
Stoll knows this from personal experience. As an experiment, she decided to spend one day being utterly honest in every encounter, right down to gripping people's hands and giving an in-depth answer when someone casually asked, "How are you?"
"By the end of the day, people were avoiding me like I had the plague," she said.
It some cases, being totally honest can cause another person harm, and theologians and saints have said that all lies are not equal. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine of Hippo talked about three kinds of lies — malicious, officious and jocose.
In today's world, a malicious or "black" lie would be one that was deliberately told to deceive or to hurt another (for example, lying about an affair). An officious or "gray" lie is one that would benefit one person without hurting another (for example, taking a sick day when you're not sick), and a jocose or "white" lie is one told to please another person (embellishing a story, or making a photo more beautiful to please other people).
When people value strict honesty in one area, such as paying taxes, but not another, such as sick days, the disconnect may have something to do with penalties, and whether or not untruthfulness negatively affects another person.
"Taking a sick day does very little damage to anyone. Lying on your taxes is illegal," Stoll said.