Is it ok to lie to customers if it helps them?

Posted: 18th May 2016

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“Have you ever been a smoker? It’s the first question you get asked!”

The other delegates nodded.

“So now I just tell them, yes”.

This little revelation occurred during a Desire Code workshop I was running with a Stop Smoking service in Lancashire a couple of years ago. We were talking about the effect of the Ingroup Bias, a psychological bias where people unconsciously have a stronger liking for other people they perceive to be like them in some identifiable way.

If you are a cyclist like I am, you’ll have probably said hello to other cyclists whilst out riding. The same happens if you are a walker or a dog owner or own an old VW camper van. Bus drivers flash their lights at each other when they pass. Train drivers do the same.

If you aren’t any of these you will still have experienced this effect because you will still be an unspoken, unofficial, informal member of some group of people who have something in common with someone else.

Back to the smoking conversation… It was a comment made by the most senior and experienced Stop Smoking Advisor in the room. She’d been doing this work for years…

“I’ve never smoked a cigarette, but quitting smoking is so hard, they always want to know if I’ve done it too, if I’ve been there. And I used to say “no” and watch as a wall came up between us. People would say that I clearly had no idea what I was talking about and then it would be hard to work with them. One day I just said “yes” and I used all my years of experience to create a story of exactly how I quit, what the pitfalls were, which approaches really helped and how tough it was. I have more success with people now.”

I’ve relayed this story to many delegates since and quite often there is someone in the room who admits they have lied about their past experience to customers too and found it was helpful. It appears to be the same for other health and care groups too, particularly weight management services. Customers want to know if you’ve been through the same thing. A group of community midwives I worked with recently said the first thing they also get asked is whether or not they have children.

I’m not passing any kind of judgement on this. In fact, I find it fascinating. But it does pose an interesting question... Is it ok to lie to customers or service users if in doing so it might actually help them? After all, they want to succeed don’t they? And smoking is a really tough addiction to quit. We can delve more into the numbers another time but the relapse rates are stark. Surely anything that swings the odds more towards the favour of the person trying to quit is a good thing.

I think there’s more than the ingroup bias at play though. I also think this is also a certainty issue. People don’t want to put an enormous amount of effort into something if they don’t think they will get anything from it. People want to know the advice they are getting is right and they want to trust the person who gives it. It’s a subconscious thing with subtext that reads something like, “if you haven’t experienced how I’m feeling then it’s just theory to you.”

Would you get in a plane where the pilot had read all the text books about flying and got the top score on the flight simulator, but never before actually taken to the air?


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