On March 2, 1959, a group of Australians gathered to celebrate a groundbreaking ceremony at Bennelong Point in central Sydney, unknowingly watching the start of one of the most disastrous construction projects in human history.
How can so many people believe things that are demonstrably false? The question has taken on new urgency as the Trump administration propagates falsehoods about voter fraud, climate change and crime statistics that large swaths of the population have bought into. But collective delusion is not new, nor is it the sole province of the political right. Plenty of liberals believe, counter to scientific consensus, that G.M.O.s are poisonous, and that vaccines cause autism.
The situation is vexing because it seems so easy to solve. The truth is obvious if you bother to look for it, right? This line of thinking leads to explanations of the hoodwinked masses that amount to little more than name calling: “Those people are foolish” or “Those people are monsters.”
Such accounts may make us feel good about ourselves, but they are misguided and simplistic: They reflect a misunderstanding of knowledge that focuses too narrowly on what goes on between our ears. Here is the humbler truth: On their own, individuals are not well equipped to separate fact from fiction, and they never will be. Ignorance is our natural state; it is a product of the way the mind works.
“When someone has a point of view we find difficult to understand, disagreeable, or even offensive, we must look to the set of circumstances that person has experienced that resulted in that point of view.”
When you find yourself in disagreement, just ask one question:
“Will you tell me your story? I’d love to know how you came to this point of view.”
“We form our beliefs based on what comes to us from the world through the window of perception, but then those beliefs act like a lens, focusing on what they want to see. In a New York University psychology laboratory earlier this year, a group of subjects watched a 45-second video clip of a violent struggle between a police officer and an unarmed civilian.3 It was ambiguous as to whether the officer, in trying to handcuff the person resisting arrest, behaved improperly. Before seeing the video, the subjects were asked to express how much identification they felt with police officers as a group. The subjects, whose eye movements were being discretely monitored, were then asked to assign culpability. Not surprisingly, people who identified less strongly with police were more likely to call for stronger punishment. But that was only for people who often looked at the police officer during the video. For those who did not look as much at the officer, their punishment decision was the same whether they identified with police or not…”
Myth #1 – Everyone lies.
Not so. Not about serious matters, not about lies which if caught could result in the end of a relationship, employment, freedom, large sums of money or life itself. Those are what I call high stake lies; they are the lies that the police and the FBI and insecure spouses are trying to catch. They are the lies of the criminal, the terrorist, the philanderer, the embezzler, and what the cops call ‘bad guys’.
Myth #2 – No one lies.
Hardly. Nearly everyone tells low stake lies. Politeness, for example, or praising the host for a dull dinner and conversation, flattery, and so forth. No one really expects to be told the truth in those situations.
Myth #3 – Women can spot lies better than men.
No they can’t; most people are terrible lie catchers, fooled by high stake lies again and again. Often they want to believe the liar. Do you want to find out your lover is unfaithful, your children are using hard drugs, the person you recommended for the job is embezzling? These are hard truths to accept, so the target of the lie often cooperates in being misled because the truth is too painful.
Myth #4 – Psychopaths are perfect liars.
Psychopaths are no more skillful at lying than anyone else, but they are so charming we want to believe them, and we do.
Myth #5 – Looking up and to the left is a sign of lying.
The research shows that which way you look before answering a question is unrelated to whether you are lying.
Myth #6 – Micro facial expressions are proof of lying.
Fleeting facial expressions do reveal an emotion that is being concealed, and that is a kind of lie, but innocents under suspicion may conceal their fear, or anger about being suspected. You need to find out why they are concealing their emotions in order to judge whether it is sign they are guilty of the offense you are investigating.
Myth #7 – Scientists have discovered a silver bullet, which works on everyone, to betray a lie.
We don’t have Pinocchio’s nose. Nothing exists which, if absent, means the person is truthful and if present is proof of lying. The polygraph, the so-called lie detector, is just a little bit better than chance. Yet it does have its use in a criminal investigation—if only one of the suspects fails the test, he or she is the first one to investigate, bearing in mind that this suspect may be the most nervous or worried about not being believed, though innocent.
Myth #8 -There is no way to spot lying from how people behave.
There are what I like to call ‘hot spots’ which indicate you are not getting the full story. If you really do want to catch a liar there are nearly thirty different hot spots to pay attention to. Micro facial expressions and gestural slips are the two most important ones, but there are many more.
For example, a slight shrug, usually of one shoulder, coinciding with a verbal statement of confidence is an example of a ‘hot spot’ revealed in a gestural slip. Something is awry. Another is a slight head shake no, only very slight, when saying ‘yes.’