Dianna Booher could have begun her insightful 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.
Reading 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.
Recognizing 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.
Based 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:
1. We trust people just because they remind us of ourselves.
There 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.)
Similarities 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.
2. 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 from deceit.
3. We are far less skeptical of attractive, charming people.
Unfair 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,” coined by 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.
4. We instinctively distrust people with low eyebrows.
By 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.
5. 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.
Another 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.
Rapid 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 lie.
We also tend to suspect people who squirm or fidget, believing that their nervousness is a sign of deceit. We forget that the 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 increase them.
6. We want to believe some lies and liars.
“Invest with me and get rich.”
“This project will give you the experience and exposure you need for that next promotion.”
Or 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.
Brain-imaging 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 highly 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.
Then 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 policy (check out The International Honesty Campaign for more on that topic), we 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.”
(Note: In order to support us and give visibility to our Honesty Awareness Campaign, Carol originally agreed to write this article in Forbes Magazine )
Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D. is an international keynote speaker at corporate, government, and association events. Contact Carol by phone: 510-526-1727, email: Carol@CarolKinseyGoman, or through her website: www.CarolKinseyGoman.com.