How Do You Know Who You Can Trust?
November 12, 2015 ~ Written by: W.B. “Bud” Kirchner
“He that has eyes to see and ears to hear may convince himself that no mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent, he chatters with his finger-tips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore.” ~ Sigmund Freud, “Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria (Collected Papers of Sigmund Freud)”
If only it were that easy.
There are volumes (I have read several) written on the neuroscience and behavioral aspects of dishonesty and its detection. I have decided to write on this topic given its importance to the integrity of relationships and transactions. In other words – it’s all part and parcel of the Business Brain Model.
Sadly, the business world (maybe because of the financial stakes and/or – just as likely – because of egos) is replete with people who are predisposed to misrepresent information ranging from simple (Is there such a thing?) lies to more elaborate deceptions including outright fraud. Simply put, in my opinion, honesty should not necessarily be calibrated by how high the stakes are.
I am, for the purposes here, disregarding what are often called – “polite lies.” By definition these are benign in nature – e.g. designed to not hurt someone’s feelings.
I intend to approach this topic from four perspectives.
- A few caveats: illustrated by some comments based as much on reasoning as evidence and then a couple real world examples of why we need to be careful about jumping to conclusions.
- Nonverbal signals: given previous articles I’ve written, I will cross reference and do a summary.
- Verbal cues: a few examples that I have (relatively speaking) confidence in as liar identifiers.
- Anecdotes: illustrations of how pervasive and complicated the lying game can be.
The first two I will deal with in this article, the next two can be found in “The Best Ways to Spot a Liar.”
Fail Safe Approach
I have in previous posts shared the original rule of thumb to determine if someone is lying in the world of business: as you may remember their lips are moving.
Other than this generalization I am not for a minute suggesting there is any definitive way to determine that someone is not telling the truth although certain professionals (individuals who devote their life to lie detection vs. a business person) do purportedly become more proficient.
“There are three types of lies – lies, damn lies, and statistics.” – Benjamin Disraeli*
This article is just another example that involves humans and their behavior which is at best an imperfect science so you need to take the ‘helpful hints’ that follow with a grain of salt.
Before I get into a couple specific (personal) examples that illustrate fallibility of determining honesty I should point out there are (what should be) obvious complicating factors such as:
- Direct discussions to validate information often occur in conditions that are by definition stressful – therefore signals like the blink rate can overlap between innocent and guilty.
- The emotional undertones of lying dampen as the lie is told – so again the innocent could appear more nervous.
- There are personality types that do not have an internal reaction to their lies.
- Most people only need to tell a lie a few times before they believe it themselves!
It should be noted that it is estimated only about 50 percent of lies are detected by counterparts.
I can share a few anecdotes from my career that further illustrate that this may be closer to art than science. And I believe you can even look at this from an evolutionary point of view – if lying were not successful it would have disappeared!
Having said this – in the Epilogue in his book “Telling Lies: Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Politics, and Marriage,”Paul Ekman writes, “I think it is easier to improve one’s ability to detect deceit than to perpetrate it.” Hard to believe!
- We were having negotiations with someone who constantly was rubbing his nose. One member of our team was aware of the proposed linkage between that and lying and became convinced the individual was trying to deceive us. Turns out, the individual had a unique allergy to one of the polishes used on the furniture in the room. Any discussion outside of that room was never accompanied by rubbing the nose.
- We’ve also had situations, given the inconsistencies and disconnects of someone describing their business, where we believed they were trying to deceive us. As time unfolded we realized he was simply confused by his own business. Being stupid is as bad as lying but at least we understood what we were dealing with.
- We have on several occasions interviewed individuals who blink, stammer and prevaricate but who we determine ultimately were honest and (sadly) vice versa.
I ask you now – what is your experience? When have you caught others in a lie? When did you think you caught someone in a lie but it wasn’t a lie? The more examples you share the more we can all learn (and in some cases laugh).
I have written a four part series on nonverbal communication and while it was not designed to focus on detecting lies there are several relevant references:
- Microexpressions and what to watch for: “It’s Not What You Say, It’s How You Show It”
- Nonverbal qualifiers and potential cultural landmines: “When a Burp is a Thumbs Up: Culturing Your Nonverbal Communication”
- “The List” of Visual/interpretation signals: “A Field Guide to Nonverbal Communication”
- 10 Commandments, 6 Planes, 4 Steps of Nonverbal Communication: “A Field Guide to Nonverbal Communication”
- Smiles (real and fake): “A Smile is Not Just a Smile”
In my next article, “The Best Ways to Spot a Liar,” I address the many various sizes (and shapes) of lies you need to look out for.
“One of the most striking differences between a cat and a lie is that a cat has only nine lives.” – Mark Twain
*Speaking of, Twain is the one who originally credited the “lies, damned lies, and statistics” quote to Disraeli but that quote is not found in any of the Prime Minister’s published works
About the Author: W.B. “Bud” Kirchner is a serial entrepreneur and philanthropist with more than 50 years of business success. He is not a scientist or an academic but he does have a diversified exposure to neuroscience, psychology and related cognitive sciences. Generally speaking, the ideas he expresses here are business-angled expansions of other people’s ideas, so when possible, he will link to the original reference.