jack nicholson

Why We Believe Liars, Part III: And Why It Matters

(Read Part One and Part Two)

“You can’t handle the truth.”

— Col. Nathan R. Jessup

That quote is not just a great line from a good movie, it is what liars say to victims when they want to be believed. Which leads us to the third reason we believe liars and let them in our lives: liars say that they lie to protect us from the truth.

When we think about falsehoods meant to protect us, we tend to think of the benign version:

“Honey, do you think I have gained a lot of weight during the pandemic?”

“No, sweetie, you still look good in my eyes.”

But when pathological liars withhold the truth from us, it is for their benefit, not ours. In fact, if you are being lied to, you are by definition the mark, the victim, the sucker. Forget that at your peril.

Um, because they’re liars?

Liars are so considerate that they lie to protect us. After all, sociopaths are known for being empathetic and concerned with others. Let’s put a finer point on this and list three examples of “you can’t handle the truth” lies that are very destructive:

  1. “There is a big, giant monster out there and you would stay up all night if you knew how hideous it really was,” usually followed by “and only I can protect you from it.” The monster could be an unidentified villain, mob, virus or invading caravan of brain-eating babies. Whether they are lying about the existence of the monster, exaggerating it, or in some cases downplaying it, all depends on what they are peddling. Spoiler alert: once they get what they want, they don’t care if the monster gets you or not. Seriously, it doesn’t matter to them.

  2. “Knowing is worse for you than not knowing.” In this version of the big lie, the prevaricator didn’t tell you something important because telling you is way worse than letting you know the truth. This is the stump speech of cheaters, after their “it was your fault I cheated” spiel fails. “I didn’t want to tell you I cheated, because it would have only hurt you further. I decided I was just going to live with shame.” Again, watch for the punchline, it comes a few seconds later when they try to get what they want. Sort of like having their Kate and Edith, too. (Editor’s note: Please edit out that horrible pun before publication.)

  3. “You don’t want to know how the sausage is made.” This variation is very common for unscrupulous employees and business partners (not to mention Bebe, the crazy agent, on Frazier). You want to enjoy the fruits of what I provide, the lie goes, and I want to protect you from knowing how I do it. Don’t look behind the curtain, don’t ask me about my methods, and to quote Don Michael Corleone (a chillingly famous portrayal of a pathological liar), “don’t ask me my business.” In reality, the liar doesn’t want you to know what he is doing because you would stop him. The lie gets you to acquiesce long enough so he can get what he wants. By the time you know the sausage is made with baby parts, you are facing prison time and the scumbag is long gone. Evidently, protecting you has its limits.

So, do we really believe these kinds of lies? Do we really not want to know the truth? Not really. This is just what liars tell us to excuse their behavior.

If you make a conscious decision to not know the truth, that is ok. I probably was better off not knowing I look like a cherub four months into a pandemic. But it ought to be our choice, expressly stated. When someone else makes that choice for us, it is never made in our best interest.

When someone tells you they lied because you couldn’t handle the truth, it really means they couldn’t handle — or couldn’t care enough to tell you — the truth. It always comes down to what the liar wants, not what is good for you. And by the time you find out, it may be too late to save the things most precious to you.

Don’t give liars that power. If someone lies to you, call them on it. If you suspect they are lying, ask them about it directly (hint: people telling the truth don’t often get offended when you ask for proof).

Take a few minutes to understand the big lies people tell you, have the strength to disarm the falsehoods, and your life, business, friendships, etc. will be a lot better. Want to know how know more about how to spot a liar? Get a copy of Lessons from the Len Master, the latest book from Ron Zayas on the lessons you need to know to be successful in life and in business.