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: Understanding deception

How to Spot a Liar

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  • Posted: 11/11/2012 1:00 PM
  • Updated: 11/11/2012

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Watch Pamela Meyer's talk above about the science of "lie spotting" and how it can lead to a more honest world.

Lying: Even t-shirts know how bad it is.

The other day a guy walked past me wearing a t-shirt with two words on it: "Everybody lies." It made me laugh.

Of course it's true. We all lie, but mostly in harmless or benign ways. Like telling your husband you don't mind if he watches football. Like telling your wife you like her new haircut when it's too short. What's the point in telling the truth? Her hair will take months to grow back anyway. Why cause a tidal wave of tears?

But our deception epidemic is not all cute, funny, and kind. Especially when it comes to perpetrating crime and enabling malice, we live in an age when lying and deceit are increasingly tolerated, and not necessarily the exception.

High-stakes lying is out of control. And it's costing us big bucks in one way or another. It's not simply a matter of quantifying losses in dollars. It's costing us emotionally and psychologically as well. We all pay through the nose for deceit, whether in increased insurance premiums, home and computer security systems, psychiatric or divorce lawyer bills, or reputational damage. Trust is under siege and at a premium.

"A lie has no power whatsoever by its mere utterance; its power emerges when someone else agrees to believe the lie." -- Pamela Meyer

Last year a newly hired football coach at Yale University had to be "de-hired" within days, before conducting even one practice: why? Falsified resume. A few years back Notre Dame underwent the same embarrassment. The New Orleans Saints football team has been charged with bugging the opposition's locker room for nearly three seasons. A cheating scandal at Harvard includes 125 students charged with collaborating on a take-home test. Former Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan claimed he ran a sub-three-hour marathon while a quick check revealed his actual time was over four hours. Democratic Senator-elect Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts was embroiled in a serious controversy over whether she practiced law without a license. The beat goes on...

Our tolerance for truthiness has increased. Our world has become somewhat cluttered with spam, fake digital friends, partisan media, ingenious identity thieves, world class Ponzi schemers... a "post-truth" society per author Ralph Keys. That might sound a bit dramatic, but consider the workplace facts:

  • It's estimated that a typical organization loses 5 percent of annual revenue to fraud. This figure translates to a potential projected annual fraud loss of more than 3.5 trillion, according to a recent study by the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners.
  • One in four Americans believes it's OK to lie to an insurer.
  • One-third of all resumes contain false information.
  • One in five employees say they are aware of fraud in their workplace but won't report it.

Various researchers have determined that in a given day we may be lied to anywhere from 10-200 times. In one study, strangers lied to each other three times within the first ten minutes of meeting each other. What makes this study interesting is not the volume of lies told -- it's that before seeing the video of themselves lying, participants overwhelmingly reported that they had been truthful. That we under-report the number of lies we tell suggests that lying is so common, so reflexive, that we are literally unaware of the steady stream of falsehoods we utter.

The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners makes several reasonable recommendations based on their findings that the majority of frauds are uncovered through tips, that perpetrators tend to live beyond their means or have control issues, that management review only surfaces deceptive schemes about 14 percent of the time and external audits are responsible for only 3 percent of cases identified: Install a fraud hotline, train your employees to recognize and report, take control of the situation immediately after wrong-doing is uncovered.

But you don't need to wait for an association to tell you what controls to install, how to profile a suspect or how to conduct a forensic investigation. Instead, just try something simple in order to do your personal part. Try signaling to everyone around you that your world will be an honest one... one where truth is strengthened, and falsehood is recognized and marginalized. Be just a bit more explicit about your moral code when having a difficult conversation. Insist on having that difficult conversation in person rather than via text. Then watch the ground start to shift just a little bit.

For a graphic representation of this talk on "lie-spotting," check out our exclusive idea visualization here.

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