man with long nose

It’s Easy To Spot A Liar. So, Why Do We Still Believe The Lies?

If you want to be vaccinated from liars, you have to understand why we sometimes believe them

The other day I was on a radio show with a host who typically discusses political topics. She had me on to promote my book, and focused on my chapter about identifying liars. She had clearly read the book and was able to put the techniques to use. And then, she turned the interview towards explaining how the candidate she didn’t support had lied, but ignored how her candidate was a pathological liar, exactly like the examples in my book. Sigh.

It got me thinking: maybe the question isn’t how to spot prevaricators, but why do we believe liars at all? And in situations where I ask questions like that, I rarely have to go further than my own flawed experience to find the answer.

Brother, can you spare a few hundred bucks?

Many years ago, a relative with a less than stellar reputation asked to borrow a few hundred dollars for rent. As he put it, “I am $300 short, and have exhausted every available avenue. If I just had a couple weeks more, I could find the money. Can you lend it to me? Can you imagine having to watch your family get evicted because — as their father – you couldn’t make rent?”

If I had had the money, it would not have been an issue. But, I didn’t; I just had the cashflow, meaning I could lend him the $300 now, but two weeks down the line I was going to be in the same situation if I didn’t get it back. I ended the call by saying, “Let me see what I can do.”

I discussed it with my wife, who correctly said, “He will never pay you back.” But the image of me seeing my family evicted weighed on my mind, and despite all my experience and logic to the contrary I lent him the money, after promising my wife I would find the money if he failed to pay. I delivered the $300 to the grateful father on the condition that I needed it back in two weeks. He sealed his promise with a hug and an emphatic “You’re a lifesaver.”

I will gladly pay you never for a hamburger today

Sure enough, two weeks later, not only did he not have the money, he admonished me for being naïve enough to have lent it in the first place: “What kind of idiot lends me money?” he said, laughing. And he was right. I learned a lesson, and spent the next two weeks earning rent back so I wouldn’t be the next one asking for a loan.

So, why did I do it? Why did I believe a known and unrepentant liar? I don’t consider myself an idiot, and I knew he was lying. The thing about liars is they use your empathy against you. His line about “can you imagine your family being evicted” cut to the heart of who I am. As a father and a husband, losing my family’s house would crush me, so his words allowed me to put myself in his place and feel his pain. Trap sprung, mouse dead, liar walks away with the cheese and laughs.

Fool me twice is still shame on you

The trick to stopping liars before they destroy your relationships, your business, your reputation, or even your country, is to separate your compassion and your character from that of the liar’s. If you put yourself in a liar’s place, you will look at the world from your point of view — and since you are likely not a liar — you end up getting trapped.

It is also why variations on the Nigerian prince wiring you money scam works on some people. In that case they get you to picture what you would do with the money, but the principal is the same. Whenever you allow a liar to get you to imagine what you would do, you are in trouble.

So what is a poor, honest person with no rich Nigerian relatives to do? Follow these three easy steps and save yourself a lot of trouble:

  1. Evaluate the character of the person before you consider what they are selling (and let’s be frank: liars are always selling something). My first question should have been: can I trust this person? If not, then everything he said would be suspect, and that is true whether I like them, agree with them or even think they are attractive. If they don’t have good character, it doesn’t matter.

  2. Understand the deal being offered. Once your liar gets to the point, understand what you are actually being asked to do, and the real terms. Not, of course, what the liar tells you the terms are, but what you really expect to happen based on what you know. For example, I knew my relative was lying about paying me back, but I also believed he didn’t have money for rent. Once you can determine the real situation and structure of the deal, you can make a more informed decision.

  3. Base your decision on what works for you, not them. In my case, if I had followed my logic, I would have determined that while he needed the money, he was not going to pay me back. If all I could afford to do was lend him the money, I needed to walk away. If I could afford to give him what he needed for rent, then fine, I could help. Same outcome, but how I felt about everything would have changed. If you know what you are getting into, and why you are doing a deal, you are less likely to feel ripped off.

These same three steps work with just about any situation where you are confronted with a liar who wants you to give them something. Whether the sociopath is asking for your vote, your money or your trust.

Does it make a difference? I think it does. Because when I make a decision based on what I want to do, I rarely have remorse. I also am less likely to become cynical. More importantly, if you are able to identify the person for what they are, you will likely make sounder decisions or limit your losses. I may have lost $300, but I never again felt compelled to repeat that mistake with him. Imagine if I had lent him my car, or entrusted him with my children or anything else of real value. All things considered, I got off easy.

There are two other main reasons we choose to believe lies, but I’ll cover those next week.

Want more strategies on identifying liars, negotiating better and being more successful at business? Click here for a special price on my newest book Lessons from the Len Master, 25% off and free shipping, or buy it on Amazon or wherever fine books are sold.