Why We Suck At Spotting Liars
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Booher could have begun her insighful book (“What More Can I
Say?”) with an example of the positive application of her
nine principles of persuasive communication. But, instead, she tells
the story of how some of these same persuasive strategies were used to
by two con artists -- and ended up costing her $25,000.
her account of a Hollywood producer who lied about presenting Dianna’s
reality TV show proposal to a major studio, reminded me of just how
easy it is to be deceived. And how smart, savvy, normally skeptical
people like Dianna (and you and I) find it so difficult to spot a liar.
that we are being lied to is an important social and business skill.
But surprisingly small factors – where we meet someone, what they wear,
what their voices sound like, whether their posture mimics ours, if
they mention the names of people we know or admire – can enhance their
credibility to the extent that it actually nullifies our ability to
make sound judgments about them. Our own unconscious biases, vanities,
self-deceptions and desires only add to the hijacking of our reason.
When we put our faith in a co-worker we don’t really know or hire
someone we haven’t properly investigated, (or give $25,000 to a
seemingly influential man), we almost always do so for reasons of which
we are completely unaware.
on content from “The Truth About Lies in the Workplace: How
to Spot Liars and What to Do About Them,” here are six
reasons why we suck at spotting liars:
We trust people just because they remind us of ourselves.
is a well-known principle in social psychology that people define
themselves in terms of social groupings: Any group that people feel
part of is an “in-group” and any group that excludes them an
“out-group.” (You know, it’s the “us” and “them” division.)
make us feel comfortable. We assume we know what in-group people are
like – they’re good people, like we are! Differences, on the other
hand, make us a little wary. When we see people as part of an
out-group, we are more likely to judge them as untrustworthy. Deceivers
with whom we have things in common are much more likely to gain our
trust – regardless of how little they may deserve it.
We disbelieve people who act “inappropriately.”
We have a tendency to make
judgments about another person’s integrity based on our ideas of
appropriate behavior. This shows up in lie detection when we believe
that we know how we’d act if we were telling the truth – and that other
truthful people would/should behave the same way. In reality, there is
no universal behavior that signals deception or honesty. People are
individuals with their own unique set of verbal and nonverbal
behaviors. Which is why establishing a person’s baseline (their normal
body language and speech patterns under relatively stress-free
circumstances) is so important when trying to separate truthfulness
We are far less skeptical of attractive, charming people.
though it may be, and even if we proclaim otherwise, we judge people by
their appearance. And we automatically assign favorable traits to
good-looking people, judging them to be more likeable, competent, and
honest than unattractive people.
The term “halo effect,”
psychologist E. L. Thorndike, is a cognitive bias in which our
perception of one desirable trait in a person can cause us to judge
that person more positively overall.
When a con artist is charming (and
most of them are), we tend automatically to believe that he/she is also
perceptive, candid, and totally on our side.
We instinctively distrust people with low eyebrows.
studying people’s reactions to a range of artificially generated faces,
researchers in Princeton’s psychology department found that faces with
high inner eyebrows, pronounced cheekbones, and a wide chin struck
people as trustworthy. Conversely, faces with low inner brows, shallow
cheekbones and a thin chin were deemed untrustworthy.
Of course, you
and I realize that eyebrow shapes and cheekbone prominence has no
relationship with truth or deception, but unconsciously we override our
rational minds to make this instant and instinctive judgment.
We look for inaccurate body language “tells.”
The biggest body language myth
about liars is that they avoid eye contact. While some liars find it
difficult to lie while looking you in the eyes, many liars, especial
the most brazen, actually overcompensate to "prove" that they are not
lying by making strong, direct eye contact and holding it steadily.
popular misconception is that looking to the right indicates lying,
while looking left suggests truthfulness. The University of Edinburgh,
completed three different studies to show that there was no correlation
between the direction of eye movement and whether the subject was
telling the truth or lying.
eye blinks can be mistaken for a sign of deception. And it’s true that
when nervous, people blink their eyes more often. But deceivers blink less
under the increased mental effort of creating a lie, remembering the
lie, inhibiting the truth, and preparing for follow-up questions. A
study at Portsmouth University shows that a person's blink rate slows
down as he/she decides to lie and stays low through the lie. Then it
increases rapidly (sometimes up to eight times normal rate) after the
also tend to suspect people who squirm or fidget, believing that their
nervousness is a sign of deceit. We forget that he first physical
reaction to stress (before the urge to fight or flee) is to freeze –
which means that liars may actually reduce movement and gestures – not
6. We want
to believe some lies and liars.
with me and get rich.”
project will give you the experience and exposure you need for that
maybe it’s just a less-than-truthful come-on from people who understand
that when they tell us exactly what we want to hear, we are more likely
to believe them.
studies show that when we have a personal stake in the outcome of any
event, our brains automatically include our desires and aspirations in
our assessments. The process is called motivated reasoning, and it
utilizes a different physical pathway in the brain (one that includes
parts of the limbic system) than the pathway used when we are
objectively analyzing data.
Subliminally, we are all
susceptible to the power of self-interest. But, because motivated
reasoning is unconscious, we may sincerely believe that we are making
unbiased choices when we are really making decisions that are
self-serving. So when Dianna heard that she might be getting her own
reality TV show -- or when any of us accept an attractive lie at face
value -- it may have as much to do with an unconscious self-interest as
it does with the liar’s skill at deception.
there is our susceptibility to flattery, which stems from a simple
desire to feel good about ourselves. We can be unduly influenced by
liars who first butter us up with compliments about our intellect,
taste in clothing, sense of humor, personal charm. After all, we
reason, they are right about those things, so they
are probably just as accurate about everything else they tell us.
While honesty may be the best
will never totally eliminate lying. That doesn’t mean we should be
distrustful of everyone we meet. In fact, a study at the University of
Toronto found those who are inclined to trust people are less likely to get
duped. But we also
shouldn’t blindly trust just because someone is attractive, charming,
influential, or looks a lot like us. Probably the best advice is the
old adage, “trust, but verify.”
About the Author
Kinsey Goman, Ph.D.
Keynote speaker on collaborative leadership and the impact of body
language in the workplace.
coach to executives to improve their leadership presence and
Leadership blogger for Forbes and author of "The Silent Language of
Leaders: How Body Language Can Help - or Hurt - How You Lead.”
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