We are exquisitely good at picking up on and reading non-verbal cues. So good in fact, that most of us can’t even name what it is that gives us a particular feeling about someone being genuine or not.
So how come we fall for the lies we are told? How do so many people cheat, lie gamble, commit fraud, and get away with harming others? It doesn’t make sense. Really the only people who should be able to dupe us are sociopaths, and they only make up about 1-3% of the population. So again- how come we fail to recognize so many lies?
Let’s look at a real life example…
I was recently invited to be the keynote speaker at an international conference. For those who are not in the conference world, it is a pretty big deal to be an invited keynote speaker, especially on an international circuit. I was surprised but honoured, and they said it was related to my being the founder of the Association for Positive Psychiatry of Canada, the first association of its kind in the world so far, so I accepted.
It turns out this conference overlapped with two other great conferences where I was invited to do workshops, so I passed these up in order to speak at the international conference instead. I figured I would get the biggest bang for my buck from that one. As the conference got closer, the conference organizers just didn’t seem to have it together and some red flags started to go off. Eventually I reached out to a colleague who is a world leader in that particular field and he confirmed what I had started to suspect, the conference was not a reputable one. Apparently there are conferences being organized that are just thrown together as money grabs, and this is what it seemed this one was. It no longer made sense for me to attend, so I contacted them to decline.
So why did I fall for it? After all, I am a Psychiatrist, I read people for a living!
Well, it turns out we are all human and that means that we are susceptible to believing lies because we all have something we hunger for, a need that we desperately want to have met and we are willing to barter the truth in order to believe it. You see in the majority of cases…
Lying is a collaborative act
Almost all of the people I have worked with who have had a family member cheating, drinking, gambling or defrauding them, or whose relationships fell apart, seemingly out of nowhere, in hind sight can list a half a dozen red flags that had gone off for them too. Like me, they responded to these red flags by making excuses for them and ignoring them for one reason or another. I was no different.
- The website wasn’t as well put together as I would have expected for an international conference, but it was outside of my direct field, so I rationalized that maybe they didn’t have as much funding as medicine does.
- Their registration process was complicated and inefficient and when I had difficulty I was put through to their support who was a woman who barely spoke English and who informed me she was working from another country- I rationalized that perhaps that is the country that was actually organizing the conference and they were employing locally.
- They posted my and the association’s information BEFORE we actually signed any agreement granting them permission to do so- this is the one that seemed the most shady to me and I could no longer make excuses. If they were willing to break those kinds of rules, they were likely not the kind of conference I want to be affiliated with.
- My final sign that I knew I was buying into a lie is that I noticed I was reluctant to contact my colleague to ask their opinion, I knew if they said it was shady I would really have no choice but to decline and I clearly had mixed feelings about that. I was deeply ambivalent about the truth, as Pamela Meyer says in her great 19 min TED talk about How to Spot a Liar (See below).
I have found that the things we tend to barter for the truth seem to most commonly be related to the things that we need to be well…
- Emotional safety: ie. if we learned conflict is dangerous because it leads to rejection and being excluded or alone, we will believe the other person when they say everything is fine and not call them on inconsistencies, and as a way to make sure we don’t cause conflict we then tell ourselves we are at fault or that we are over-reacting when things don’t add up.
- Physical safety: ie. if we fear we are at risk of being injured ourselves if we admit someone is harming someone else, so we turn a blind eye to their bruises or the fear on their face when a particular person enters the room.
- Financial safety: ie. if we are afraid we will be rejected by co-workers who can make it difficult for us to do our job if we rat them out for doing things unethically, so we make excuses and allowances for them
We will often buy into lies where we get to feel we are being picked, we belong, or we will invest in the fairy tale of the life we want to be living – at the expense of acknowledging any signs that is not actually our reality and there are problems. For example, the couple who insist they are very happily married, but one of them is constantly flirting with other people and the other drinks a lot, but no one is willing to face that they are anything less than living happily ever after when one is regularly being disrespectful and the other is avoiding being present.
- Or we will go along with being the screw up or the strong one (whatever the assigned role we have been given in the family dynamics) in order to not be rejected by family or friends, even if we know it isn’t true. For example, if we are seen as the strong one, we won’t ask for help even when we need it, or if we are the screw up, we won’t tell people about our accomplishments.
3. PURPOSE and MASTERY- feeling we have a purpose, and we are good at something
- I wanted to feel acknowledged for my hard work putting together the association, so I was willing to believe that even though I have not yet published piles of research in the field, which s how most keynotes are chosen, there was an exception made.
4. MEANING and LEGACY- feeling like we are contributing to something bigger than ourselves.
- I really believe in the work that I do and how I do it because I see the impact of it every day, so starting the association was scary- it was a risk, but it was too important not to try. This is definitely one of the ways I feel I am contributing to something beyond myself, so I was invested in believing it was getting international recognition.
5. CREATIVITY and CHALLENGE– use it or loose it is the rule with brain function.
- I don’t see this one as much as a stand alone, it is usually tied in with one of the others. Creativity often gets tied in with meaning and challenge often gets tied in with mastery.
So when do we STOP buying into lies? Usually only when it becomes almost impossible to keep believing them! And even then sometimes we keep investing in them for a while longer!
So how do we stop ourselves from believing the lies we are told in the first place?
- Know what you hunger for
- Which of the needs above are you craving right now? And recognize that it can change depending on life circumstance and stage of life. For example, teens are usually pretty heavy on tribe, by mid- 20’s to 30’s the focus is more on purpose and mastery, and by late life it is usually more heavily focused on meaning and legacy.
2. Be honest with yourself about your readiness for the truth
3. Listen to your body and intuition
- Even if you can’t quite put it into words, notice your body’s reactions to people and what they are saying and doing, ask yourself if it makes you feel stronger/ weaker, calm or distressed and give yourself permission to ask for clarification or just act based on your gut when need be.
For a great TED talk about How to Spot a Liar, watch below… See you next week!