Lying is a Cooperative Act: How Good Leaders Learn the Truth

Which is the fake smile?
“A lie has no power whatsoever by its mere utterance,” says Pamela Meyer. “Its power emerges when someone else agrees to believe the lie.”

We are not always willing participants. Master forger and con man Henry Oberlander who was active in the 1930s understood human psychology well. “Everyone is willing to give something for whatever it is they desire the most,” he said. This became famous as “Henry's Rule,” and gives us a view into why deception is so profitable.

Research reveals the complexity of lying. Meyer says:

On a given day, studies show that you may be lied to anywhere from 10 to 200 times. Now granted, many of those are white lies. But in another study, it showed that strangers lied three times within the first 10 minutes of meeting each other. (Laughter) Now when we first hear this data, we recoil. We can't believe how prevalent lying is. We're essentially against lying. But if you look more closely, the plot actually thickens. We lie more to strangers than we lie to coworkers. Extroverts lie more than introverts. Men lie eight times more about themselves than they do other people. Women lie more to protect other people. If you're an average married couple, you're going to lie to your spouse in one out of every 10 interactions. Now, you may think that's bad. If you're unmarried, that number drops to three.

Lying is woven into the fabric of our daily and our business lives. We're deeply ambivalent about the truth. We parse it out on an as-needed basis, sometimes for very good reasons, other times just because we don't understand the gaps in our lives. That's truth number two about lying. We're against lying, but we're covertly for it in ways that our society has sanctioned for centuries and centuries and centuries. It's as old as breathing. It's part of our culture, it's part of our history. Think Dante, Shakespeare, the Bible, News of the World.

There's is an evolutionary aspect of lying. For example, many parents learn that their babies sometimes fake crying to get attention, and two year old children bluff to keep testing those boundaries of what is possible and what is not allowed.

Those familiar with the principles of cognitive science and evolutionary psychology know that as David Livingstone Smith says in Why We Lie: The Evolutionary Roots of Deception and the Unconscious Mind, “the ever-present possibility of deceit is a crucial dimension of every human relationship, even the most central: our relationship with our very selves.”

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely says dishonesty is not rational. In The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves he says we all cheat a little, but not so much that it causes us to compromise our self-image or integrity. He calls this the “fudge factor.”

Aldert Vrij, a Professor of Applied Social Psychology in the Department of Psychology at the University of Portsmouth (UK) has been researching the nonverbal and verbal cues to deception and lie detection. 

Science has surfaced many indicators, and Vrji's book Detecting Lies and Deceit: Pitfalls and Opportunities is a comprehensive resource for anyone who wants to understand the working and efficacy of the most commonly used lie detection tools covering all three aspects of deception – nonverbal cues, speech and written statement analysis and (neuro)physiological responses.

What can we do to learn the truth?

“Trained liespotters get to the truth 90 percent of the time,” says Pamela Meyer. For those who are curious about becoming better at spotting lies but don't have time for Detecting Lies and Deceipt's deep dive, three former CIA officers share their techniques in Spy the Lie: Former CIA Officers Teach You How to Detect Deception.

“The rest of us, we're only 54 percent accurate” in spotting lies says Meyer. However:

there are steps we can take to navigate our way through the morass.

[…] There are good liars and bad liars. There are no real original liars. We all make the same mistakes. We all use the same techniques.

[…] Studies show that people who are overdetermined in their denial will resort to formal rather than informal language.

[…] We know that liars will unconsciously distance themselves from their subject, using language as their tool.

Qualifying language also further discredits the source. We can learn to get better at identifying the signs someone is lying. Spam, phishing schemes, fake digital friends, and partisan media are teaching us how to spot similar patterns in writing, including the typos and misspellings.

Body language is where we need to be more careful and let the science guide us. Meyers says:

With body language, here's what you've got to do. You've really got to just throw your assumptions out the door. Let the science temper your knowledge a little bit. Because we think liars fidget all the time. Well guess what, they're known to freeze their upper bodies when they're lying. We think liars won't look you in the eyes. Well guess what, they look you in the eyes a little too much just to compensate for that myth. We think warmth and smiles convey honesty, sincerity. But a trained liespotter can spot a fake smile a mile away.

[…] when you're having a conversation with someone you suspect of deception, attitude is by far the most overlooked but telling of indicators.

What's the difference when talking with someone who is honest?

An honest person is going to be cooperative. They're going to show they're on your side. They're going to be enthusiastic. They're going to be willing and helpful to getting you to the truth. They're going to be willing to brainstorm, name suspects, provide details. They're going to say, "Hey, maybe it was those guys in payroll that forged those checks." They're going to be infuriated if they sense they're wrongly accused throughout the entire course of the interview, not just in flashes; they'll be infuriated throughout the entire course of the interview. And if you ask someone honest what should happen to whomever did forge those checks, an honest person is much more likely to recommend strict rather than lenient punishment.

We have “blind spots,” say Bazerman and Tenbrunsel to explain why people with good intentions may fail to act in accordance with their own ethical standards. In Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What's Right and What to Do about It, a book written for managers and leaders, they say that “without an awareness of blind sports, traditional approaches to ethics won't be particular useful in improving behavior.”

When looking at problems, leaders should consider if:

  • it's an ethical or a non-ethical issue (for example, a business or an engineering decision)
  • prejudices that are outside of their conscious awareness may motivate their behaviors
  • informal or unwritten forces within the organization encourage employees to ignore or minimize the ethical implications of a decision, or
  • factors like isolation, uncertainty, and time pressure increase the likelihood of an unethical decision

“Character's who you are in the dark,” says Meyer.

And what's kind of interesting is that today, we have so little darkness. Our world is lit up 24 hours a day. It's transparent with blogs and social networks broadcasting the buzz of a whole new generation of people that have made a choice to live their lives in public. It's a much more noisy world. So one challenge we have is to remember, oversharing, that's not honesty. Our manic tweeting and texting can blind us to the fact that the subtleties of human decency — character integrity — that's still what matters, that's always what's going to matter. So in this much noisier world, it might make sense for us to be just a little bit more explicit about our moral code.

Ariely says that “most of us need little reminders to keep ourselves on the right path.” Good leaders make use of behavioral prompts and cues to affect their environment.

Being willing to engage in an open conversation about ethics and human psychology can help us draw the line on “Henry's Rule” and work on the “fudge factor.”

Watch Pamela Meyer full talk for visual examples below.

For those who are still curious about the science of lying, in addition to her own book, Meyer recommends the following:


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