Spotting Liars

We’re bad at accurately interpreting behavior and speech patterns, said James Alcock, professor of psychology at Canada’s York University. Learning is based on getting regular feedback, he told me. Try to add 2 + 2 and someone will tell you whether you got it right or wrong. Over time, that feedback allows you to know when you’re right. But there’s no systematic un-blinding to tell you when you correctly guessed whether you were being lied to. The feedback we get on this is spotty. Often there is none. Sometimes the feedback itself is incorrect. There’s never a chance to really learn and get better, Alcock said. “So why should we be good at it?”

Take people whose job it is to professionally detect lies — judges, police officers, customs agents. Studies show they believe themselves to be better than chance at spotting liars. But the same studies show they aren’t, Alcock said. And that makes sense, he told me, because the feedback they get misleads them. Customs agents, for instance, correctly pull aside smugglers for searches just often enough to reinforce their sense of their own accuracy. But “they have no idea about the ones they didn’t search who got away,” Alcock said.

Maggie Koerth-baker, writing in fivethirtyeight


a Well-Meaning Lie?

When caught lying (paternalistically or otherwise), people often defend themselves by saying they lied to protect the other person. But before lying to protect someone’s interests or feelings, ask yourself not only whether you are lying to protect them, but also whether that person would believe your lie was well-intended if they found out. In several studies, we found that people were not likely to believe paternalistic lies were well-intended, and reacted poorly to these lies even when the liar communicated good intentions. However, people were more likely to believe that paternalistic lies were well-intended when they were told by people who knew them well or had reputations as helpful, kind people.  

Even though paternalistic lies are often well-intentioned, if uncovered, they will usually backfire. Lying may be helpful when there is no ambiguity about the resulting benefits for those on the receiving end. But in most other circumstances, honesty is the best policy.    

Adam Eric Greenberg, Emma E. Levine, Matthew Lupoli writing in the Harvard Business Review 

The illuision

Self-evaluation involves interpretation. We’re all heard the studies showing that the vast majority of us consider ourselves above-average drivers. In the psychology literature, this belief is known as a positive illusion. Our brains are positive factories: Only 2 percent of high school seniors believe their leadership skills are below average. A full 25 percent of people believe they’re in the top 1 percent in their ability to get along with others. Ninety-four percent of college professors report doing above average work. People think they’re at lower risk than their peers for heart attacks, cancer, and even food-related illnesses such as salmonella.

Most deliciously self-deceptive of all, people say they are more likely than their peers to provide accurate self-assessments. Positive illusions pose an enormous problem with regard to change. Before people can change, before they can move in a new direction, they’ve got to have their bearings. But positive illusions make it hard for us to orient ourselves – to get a clear picture of where we are and how we’re doing.

Chip & Dan Heath, Switch

Prone to Cheating

Dan Ariely contends that the vast majority of people are prone to cheating. He also thinks they are more willing to cheat on other people’s behalf than their own. People routinely struggle with two opposing emotions. They view themselves as honourable. But they also want to enjoy the benefits of a little cheating, especially if it reinforces their belief that they are a bit more intelligent or popular than they really are. They reconcile these two emotions by fudging—adding a few points to a self-administered IQ test, for example, or forgetting to put a few coins in an honesty box.

The amount of fudging that goes on depends on the circumstances. People are more likely to lie or cheat if others are lying or cheating, or if a member of another social group (such as a student wearing a sweatshirt from a rival university) visibly flouts the rules. They are more likely to lie and cheat if they are in a foreign country rather than at home. Or if they are using digital rather than real money. And people are more likely to break their own rules if they have spent the day resisting temptation: dieters often slip after a day of self-denial, for example.

What can be done about dishonesty? Harsh punishments are ineffective, since the cheat must first be caught. The trick is to nudge people to police themselves, by making it harder for them to rationalise their sins. For example, Mr Ariely finds that people are less likely to cheat if they read the Ten Commandments before doing a test, or if they have to sign a declaration of honesty before submitting their tax return. Another technique is to encourage customers to police suppliers: eBay, an online marketplace, hugely reduced cheating by getting buyers to rank sellers.

Adrian Wooldridge writing in The Economist

How would you answer Peter's question?

Whenever I interview someone for a job, I like to ask this question: “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?” This question sounds easy because it’s straightforward. Actually, it’s very hard to answer. It’s intellectually difficult because the knowledge that everyone is taught in school is by definition agreed upon. And it’s psychologically difficult because anyone trying to answer must say something she knows to be unpopular. Brilliant thinking is rare, but courage is in even shorter supply than genius.

Most commonly, I hear answers like the following:

“Our educational system is broken and urgently needs to be fixed.”

“America is exceptional.”

“There is no God.”

Those are bad answers. The first and the second statements might be true, but many people already agree with them. The third statement simply takes one side in a familiar debate. A good answer takes the following form: “Most people believe in x, but the truth is the opposite of x.”

Peter Thiel

Zero to One Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future

Little Lies

Small, self-serving lies are likely to progress to bigger falsehoods, and over time, the brain appears to adapt to the dishonesty, according to a new study. 

The finding, the researchers said, provides evidence for the “slippery slope” sometimes described by wayward politicians, corrupt financiers, unfaithful spouses and others in explaining their misconduct. 

“They usually tell a story where they started small and got larger and larger, and then they suddenly found themselves committing quite severe acts,” said Tali Sharot, an associate professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London. She was a senior author of the study.

Erica Goode writing in the New York Times

As many followers as possible

Noelle Moseley, who consults for technology companies told me that she had recently interviewed heavy users of Instagram: young women who cultivated different personas on different social networks. Their aim was to get as many followers as possible – that was their definition of success.

Every new follow and every comment delivered an emotional hit. But a life spent chasing hits didn’t feel good. Moseley’s respondents spent all their hours thinking about how to organise their lives in order to take pictures they could post to each persona, which meant they weren’t able to enjoy whatever they were doing, which made them stressed and unhappy.

Ian Leslie writing in 1843 magazine

Stop chasing originality

The quest for originality is a distraction. It usually leads to a self-obsessive focus on saying what’s never been said when all that really matters is saying what you believe, saying what you feel, and saying what you mean. When you first start doing this, you might not sound very original, but this process is precisely how you find your voice.

TK Coleman, 5 Ways to Steal Like An Artist

How to Encourage Cheating

People are more likely to cheat on tests if they are a step removed from the cash payoff, according to Predictably Irrational author Dan Ariely. Managers, for instance, padded expenses more often when their assistants were the ones compiling reports instead of themselves. Ariely also found people who knowingly wore fake designer sunglasses were more than twice as likely to cheat later on an unrelated task than those wearing the real thing. His conclusion? A step in the direction of deception makes the next step toward it easier because the way a person defines themselves will shift in the direction of deception.

If these tests reveal how to encourage cheating, then how can we encourage honesty?

Two studies offer a clue to one way. In a math task using tokens as rewards, participants were first told to recall as much of the Ten Commandments as they could, before taking the test. This group didn’t cheat at all on the test. At the same time, without a Ten Commandments refresher did cheat. In another study, an auto insurer found requiring car owners to sign their names at the top of an insurance application led to greater honesty about driving habits, even when it meant higher premiums.

It seems a reminder about ethical behavior influences our immediate choices.

Stephen Goforth

Fooling Ourselves

The psychologist Ray Hyman has spent most of his life studying the art of deception. Before he entered the halls of science, he worked as a magician and then moved on to mentalism after discovering he could make more money reading palms than performing card tricks. The crazy thing about Hyman’s career as a palm reader is, like many psychics, over time he began to believe he actually did have psychic powers. The people who came to him were so satisfied, so bowled over, he thought he must have a real gift. Subjective validation cuts both ways.

Hyman was using a technique called cold reading where you start with the wide-angle lens of generalities and watch the other person for cues so you can constrict the iris down to what seems like a powerful insight into the other person’s soul. It works because people tend to ignore the little misses and focus on the hits. As he worked his way through college, another mentalist, Stanley Jaks, took Hyman aside and saved him from delusion by asking him to try something new – tell people the opposite of what he believed their palms revealed. The result? They were just as flabbergasted by his abilities, if not more so. Cold reading was powerful, but tossing it aside he was still able to amaze. Hyman realized what he said didn’t matter as long as his presentation was good. The other person was doing all the work, tricking themselves, seeing the general as the specific.

Mediums and palm readers, those who speak for the dead or see into the beyond for cash, depend on subjective validation. Remember, your capacity to fool yourself is greater than the abilities of any conjurer, and conjurers come in many guises. You are a creature impelled to hope. As you attempt to make sense of the world you focus on what falls into place and neglect that which doesn’t fit, and there is so much in life that does not fit.

David McRaney, You are Not so Smart

Here are the Rules

When someone gives you rules for your relationship whether explicitly or implied (“We can only talk about these subjects and not those subjects over there” or “We will only go to these places together” or “Only contact me in this particular way”) you have to decide whether this comes out of a legitimate concern to keep the relationship in a healthy place or whether it’s an attempt to control you-prompted by insecurity and fear. In other words, is this a request that you become co-conspirators in hiding from painful truths about the person making the request?

Stephen Goforth

Creativity can lead to dishonesty

Creative people who can “think out of the box” are prized in the business world, the arts, and science. But a new study has found that creative thinkers are also more likely to cheat to get ahead, and to rationalize away less-than-ethical behavior.

Harvard Business School researchers gave personality quizzes to hundreds of study participants and then asked them to perform quick games or other tasks for cash. Participants who scored high on a creativity test were more likely to falsify their results so they could earn more prize money. People who were merely high in intelligence, however, were not more dishonest. It appears that the same “divergent thinking” and “cognitive flexibility” that enable creative people to come up with innovative ways of looking at things also equip them to circumvent ethical norms—and to justify their cheating to themselves.

“When you’re a creative person, you can use that creativity to come up with reasons for why unethical behaviors may be okay,” researcher Francesca Gino tells The Boston Globe. These “self-serving rationalizations,” she said, can include deciding that “other people would cheat under the same circumstances or that a little cheating will not hurt anyone.”

The Week magazine

The Ethical Task

Self-actualization is not merely a good to be desired, but rather a task, something human persons have been assigned to do and which they will be held responsible for achieving or failing to achieve.

Of course, not everyone is aware of this ethical task. (Kierkegaard) says that a great many people drift through life, “managing with custom and tradition” in their respective cities. Such people live their lives in a way similar to the way children who have not been taught table manners might get by at a fancy party: “Watch the other polite children and behave as they do.” Someone who lives life this way lacks… “authenticity” or “originality.” Such a person “would never do anything first and would never have any opinion unless he first knew that other had it.

C. Steven Evans, Kierkegaard: An Introduction

a step into authenticity

Transition may not be simply a step toward an outlook that is more appropriate to the life-phase that we are actually in. It can also be a step toward our own more authentic presence in the world. That would mean that we come out of a transition knowing ourselves better and being more willing to express who we really are, whenever we choose to do so. It would also mean that we are more often willing to trust that who-we-really-are is all right—is valid and a person capable of dealing with the world.

William Bridges, The Way of Transition

What are they hiding?

When people speak in vague generalities.. and use a lot of abstract terms like “justice”, “morality”, “liberty” and so no, without really ever explaining the specifics of what they are talking about, they are almost always hiding something.

Meanwhile, people who use cutesy, colloquial language, brimming with clichés and slang, may be trying to distract you from the thinness of their ideas, trying to win you over not by the soundness of their arguments but by making you feel chummy and warm toward them. And people who use pretentious, flowery language, crammed with clever metaphors, are often more interested in the sound of their own voices than in reaching the audience with a genuine thought. In general, you must pay attention to the forms in which people express themselves; never take their content at face value.

Robert Greene, The 33 Strategies of War

two lies

We lie, of course, not only to others but also to ourselves. Of the myriad lies people often tell themselves, two of the most common, potent and destructive are “We really love our children” and “Our parents really loved us.” If may be that our parents did love us and we do love our children, but when it is not the case, people often go to extraordinary lengths to avoid the realization.

I frequently refer to psychotherapy as the “truth game” or the “honest game” because its business is among other things to help patients confront such lies. One of the roots of mental illness is invariably an interlocking system of lies we have been told and lies we have told ourselves. These roots can be uncovered and excised only in an atmosphere of utter honesty.

M Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled

Open People

By virtue of the fact that their maps are continually being challenged, open people are continually growing people. Because the never speak falsely they can be secure and proud in the knowledge that they have done nothing to contribute to the confusion of the world, but have served as sources of illuminations and clarification.

Finally, they are totally free to be. They are not burdened by any need to hide. They do not have to slink around in the shadows. They do not have to construct new lies to hide old ones. They need waste no effort covering tracks or maintaining disguise. And ultimately they find that the energy required for the self-discipline of honesty is far less than the energy required for secretiveness.

The more honest one is, the easier it is to continue being honest, just as the more lies one has told, the more necessary it is to lie again. By their openness, people dedicated to the truth live in the open, and through the exercise of their courage to live in the open, they become free from fear.

M Scott Peck
The Road Less Traveled