"A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes." (Mark Twain)

It's better to trust than to live a paranoid existence. Relationships grounded in trust are prized. Little white lies, such as "You look good today" are often welcomed. However, you can be harmed by deceptions. If you are like most, this has already happened to you. If you think it is important to know how to separate smooth but harmful lies from exaggerations, and to become an enlightened skeptive, read on.

Three Levels of Deception

"Truth is such a rare thing; it is delightful to tell it."  (Emily Dickinson)

When Oprah Winfrey endorsed James Frey's memoirs, he gained overnight fame. But Frey was a master of distortions and exaggerations. This was no memoir, but a fiction. Many of his statements didn't check out. Frey first rationalized to justify his lying. Oprah publicly scolded him for duping her and his readers. The poet, Sir Walter Scott, explained this path of deception when he wrote, "Oh what a wicked web we weave when first we practice to deceive."

Which of the following three categories do you think Frey's fibs fall?

White lies are intended to be harmless.  Most prefer white lies over unpleasant raw truths. A friend may not like your outfit and still compliments your appearance. People tell face-saving fibs to evade blame: "Gee, I'm sorry I couldn't get back to you. My mother was in the hospital." If you ask a woman for a date and she says "I'd love to go, but my cousin will be in town," she's probably letting you down kindly.  If she really wanted to date you, she'd give you an alternative time. On-line dating services are common grounds for deception. Men are more likely to misrepresent their personal assets and relationship goals and women to misrepresent their weight.  You promise to do part of your project on time. You procrastinate. When you make this type of false promise, you straddle the worlds of white lies and and manipulative deceptions.

Manipulative deceivers hide information, distort, and exaggerate to control your choices and decisions. These deceptions are the tools of con-artists, politicians, unscrupulous marketers, and nearly everyone else who seeks advantage at your expense. You believe your financial broker works in your interest. But the end game is not necessarily to make money for you. The objective is to earn money for the firm and for his or herself. You are the means to support that end. The results of these self-serving deceptions may be financially costly and stressful to you.

Mendacious deceptions are conscienceless acts that cause major harm and stress. Deceivers can throw you off track by blaming others for what they are doing. Jack frequently told his wife, Jill, of his disgust with the infidelities of his married co-workers. By accident, Jill found credit card statements concealed in the glove compartment of Jack's company car. The receipts showed local motel room bookings on days Jack told Jill he was working out-of-state. She saw expensive restaurant tabs and floral bills that matched the motel dates. Jill saw--in hindsight--that Jack had protested far too often and vigorously about others' philandering. Bernie Madoff's $50 billion Ponzi scheme was a mendacious deception. He habitually caused great harm to many. De la Villehuchet, a French financier, lost over $1.4 billion from buying into that scheme.  It dearly cost him, his family, his friends, and his colleagues. He killed himself. This type deception may spill over to an evil deception.

Evil deceptions are motivated by intentions to cause harm to innocent others. If you believe in evil, you'll find it in the conduct of Heaven's Gate cult leader and mass murderer, Marshall Applewhite. Applewhite duped many of his followers into believing they were space aliens whose time had come to move to heaven via a spaceship that followed the Hale Bopp Comet. But first they had to vacate their "vehicles" or bodies. Each packed a duffle bag and had twenty-five cent pieces for this spirit journey. As Applewhite murdered each to free them from their bodies, you'd think that the remaining cult members would figure out why the bags and coins stayed behind.

Here's my opinion on Frey's deception. It's mainly manipulative and self-serving.

 Enlightened Skepticism

"Truth fears no questions." (Unknown)

You can protect yourself from harmful deceptions by enlightened skepticism.  Enlightened skepticism is a way to assess truth through fact-finding and questioning. You gain from this effort in at least three ways. You (1) hone your critical thinking skills; (2) learn who to trust, and in what degree; (3) discover who seeks personal advantage at your expense.  

You are vulnerable to lies and deceptions when you don't know the facts, the situation is fuzzy, or you want badly to believe a lie. To avoid that trap, ask and answer ten enlightened skepticism questions:

1. What do I know about the speaker's truthfulness?

2. Is the statement consistent with reality?

3. Can I verify the statement?

4. What do I gain by accepting and acting on the statement?

5. What do I lose by accepting and acting on the statement?

6. What does the speaker gain if I bought into the statement?

7. What is exaggerated or downplayed in the statement?

8. Does the idea seem too good to be true?

9. Would I advise my best friend to accept the statement without a question of doubt?

10. What doesn't compute? (Is something being said too emphatically or in some strange way?)

By asking and answering these questions, you can help yourself keep habitual deceivers at a distance. If you find gaps in the information, suspend judgment until you know enough to render a reasoned judgment.

You can practice developing your deception detection skills with fun simulations:

1. Observe TV opinion shows. Listen to the talking points. You'll hear examples of hyperbole, omissions, half-truths, outright lies, and overgeneralizations, and emotional reasoning to control the narrative and shape public opinion.

2. Commercials give you opportunities to practice your critical thinking skills. What omissions and exaggerations do you find? What do independent product rating show?

As a skilled deception detector, you are likely to come across as sincere and sharp. Habitual deceivers may seek easier targets.

For more on deception detection see Take Charge Now

(c) Dr. Bill Knaus

You are reading

Science and Sensibility

A Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump Leadership Test

How do the candidates compare on 22 important leadership qualities?

On Stress, Anxiety, and Procrastination

How to calmly cope effectively