Like politics or where to find the best pizza in town, lies are one of those topics in which everyone considers himself or herself an expert. To a degree, this makes sense. We've all been lied to--many of us in serious, hurtful ways. And if we're honest, all of us have told lies at one time or another, as well. Simply put, when it comes to lying, there are no amateurs.

Yet despite our familiarity and (alleged) expertise regarding lies, many misconceptions about deceit endure. Over the next several weeks, I'll be using this space to clear these misconceptions. I'll also address some of the major acts of deception that appear in the news--and naturally, I expect no shortage of material.

One of the biggest stories of deceit this summer is actually one that underscores a significant misunderstanding about lies and how they function. In June, Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter was sentenced to five years in prison for kidnapping his 7-year old daughter during a post-divorce visitation and for assaulting the social worker assigned to supervise the visit. Yet the real interest of the story was the fact that for years leading up to the divorce, Gerhartsreiter had posed as "Clark Rockefeller," a scion of one of the most prominent families in American history. Gerhartsreiter, a German immigrant who came to the United States in the 1970s, apparently fooled everyone, including his wife and the tony circle to which he belonged, into believing he was a wealthy, cultured, art-collecting Rockefeller.

Stories of con men such as Gerhartsreiter raise a number of puzzling questions, but perhaps the most troublesome is: How did he get away with it? What incredible talents for deceit could allow someone to fool so many, so dramatically, for so long?

The surprising answer is, not much talent at all.

While surveys repeatedly show that people have a great deal of confidence in their ability to detect lies, psychological studies of lie detection reveal that, in fact, most people have no better than a 50-50 chance of spotting a lie. In other words, when it comes to ferreting out the truth, we might as well flip a coin. Further, studies of so-called lie detection "experts," such as judges and police officers, demonstrate that they are no better at spotting lies than the rest of the population.

Now let's return to Gerhartsreiter. Given that people are just not very good at noticing lies, perhaps we shouldn't be so surprised that he succeeded in so much deception. It wasn't that he was especially cunning; it was that the people he was fooling, like most people, were easily fooled.

There are a many reasons for the difficulties in spotting a lie, which we'll explore in future posts. For now, a word of reassurance: while it may be unnerving how easy it is to succeed in a lie, keep in mind that characters such as Gerhartsreiter are extremely rare. It is very unlikely any of the Rockefellers (or whomever it might be) you know are in fact not who they claim to be. Lies are a common part of life. Fortunately, con men are not.

About the Author

Robert Feldman

Robert Feldman is a social psychologist at the University of Massachusetts and author of The Liar in Your Life: The Way to Truthful Relationships.

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