Catching Liars

Allen Faulton
5 min readApr 9, 2018

The Modern Survival Guide #5

This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. You believe me, right?

There are few things that will cause you more angst in life than finding out that someone is lying to you. Even if it’s not of the “did you kill that man?” variety of questions, getting real, honest answers to real, honest inquiries is extraordinarily important. Statements like “yeah this car is totally under warranty” are the types of things that can have major impacts if they turn out to be less than true. And that’s not even touching the more common interpersonal lies, things like “no that dress doesn’t make you look fat,” or “I like your mother,” or “it’s your baby.”

Catching the liars in your life can be a core component of modern survival, depending on how honest your friends are, what your personal circumstances are, how paranoid you are, and of course how damaging the lie is. So let’s get some things out of the way first.

  1. Everyone lies to you at some point.
  2. You lie all the time too.
  3. The things people lie about may not make sense to you.
  4. Not all lies are harmful.

Feel free to dispute any of those points if you like, but for the purposes of this discussion let’s assume they’re true. Now let’s start with some realities about catching liars:

  1. Watching someone’s eyes isn’t always a good tell.
  2. Watching someone’s expressions or body language isn’t always a good tell.
  3. Listening to someone’s tone of voice isn’t always a good tell.
  4. Having someone take a polygraph doesn’t always work.
  5. People will cover for each other in proportion to their own self-interest and/or relationship to the person telling the lie.
  6. People will lie about literally anything.

Did I just shatter years of assumptions, made after watching TV cop dramas, that you can tell a liar at a glance? Well, you can’t. Serious cops know this, as do high school guidance counselors and CIA spymasters. Sufficiently good liars can fool anyone.

If you do a Google search for “how to spot a liar,” you pretty quickly recognize that literally anything anyone does could be interpreted as an indication they’re lying to you. And yet somehow, with all these tips and tricks lying around, people still manage to get away with lies. And any government agency has seen its fair share of absolute traitors passing a polygraph with flying colors. So… either you assume everyone is lying (not a bad assumption) or you come up with another way.

As it happens, there is a very good way to tell if someone is lying or not: evidence. If they say things that do not match observed empirical reality, they’re lying. Period. Assign whatever moral judgement or personal excuses you want to this implication. Unfortunately, this doesn’t help you tell if someone is lying in the moment. But it will tell you who among your social circle is lying the most and, more important, who is telling the most destructive lies.

It’s actually very hard to tell a lie that stands up to any kind of scrutiny. You usually have to have someone cover for you, and most people don’t plan that far ahead. Most lies, particularly of the “I was hanging out at this place with that person” variety can be checked by asking the other person. Or stalking Facebook and Instagram, whichever is more convenient. Most of the more damaging lies in my life were told during a confrontation, which means the liar (whether it was me or someone else) had to make up something on the spot.

This brings up a key point of catching a liar — you have to remember what they told you in the first place. You’d think this would be easy, but it is very, very hard. The trouble is, the human memory isn’t that great; we have a tendency to make our memories match what we think happened, or what someone tells us happened, or what we wanted to happen. This is why people make terrible eyewitnesses. A really good liar will exploit this weakness and gaslight their opposition by simply being absolutely confident and sincere in their version of events.

If we go political for just a second, this is how Trump gets away with things. He’s like the best living example of this kind of thing that I can think of. He just makes things up, (“I had the largest inauguration crowd ever!”) and it’s virtually impossible to call him on all of it. By the time you figure out all the lies, the public attention is on the next thing.

The easiest way to defeat this kind of tactic is to write things down (or take pictures). Keeping a written (or photographic) list of infractions may feel like it’s a little petty, but if you really want to catch someone lying to you it’s absolutely necessary. Make your list, check it twice, and you’ll find out who’s naughty or nice.

To go back to the Trump example, we knew he was lying about the size of his inaugural crowd because the Park Service and DC journalists took pictures and compared them (along with Metro receipts and similar evidence) against past inaugurations. And lo and behold, Trump’s wasn’t that big. Now to the next sticky wicket: once you have evidence, you have to be able to believe it. This is also harder than one might think. The people we are best at lying to are ourselves. Just ask all the Trump supporters who refused to believe the “lamestream” media about this evidence.

It will be sorely tempting to believe that someone is not lying to you. Maybe they just made a mistake. Maybe their memory is wrong. Maybe your memory is wrong. Maybe their perception of events is wrong. And so on. Trouble is, any or all of these things could be true. And herein lies the problem. Hope springs eternal, and it is so much easier to believe that trusted people aren’t lying to you then it is to admit that they did. And do. And will.

Repetition can help drive this point home. Keep writing things down. Keep checking your list. Keep track of who’s been naughty and nice. Keep track of the kinds of lies they’re telling you. Eventually, the preponderance of evidence will outweigh reservations. Then you can decide how you want to deal with it.

P.S.

I’ve been informed that this is an awful lot of work to go through for every lie you’re ever told. That wasn’t my intention. Save this kind of thing for the lies that count. Don’t worry so much whether your friend thinks the dress makes you look fat, or whether your partner really likes your mother. But do check to see if the baby is yours, and do check to make sure that new laws will actually benefit you before supporting your leader’s latest populist agenda.

-Allen

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