Because I live in Massachusetts, this summer's news that David Ortiz, the beloved slugger for the Boston Red Sox, had been embroiled in a steroids controversy was a hot conversation topic. Beyond the hand-wringing that characterizes many Red Sox fans ("I knew this would happen! Everything was going too well!"), one question I heard again and again was a variation on this: "How could I have been fooled?"
Ortiz had been an outspoked critic of steroid use. He had himself denied using many times. What many of my friends and colleagues wanted to know was, Why weren't the lies transparent? Why were we fooled?
When liars seek to deceive us, they enjoy what I call the Liar's Advantage. This is an umbrella term for a variety of factors that make deception difficult to uncover. Some of these factors are deeply embedded into the way we think. For example, all of us operate with what's called a truth bias, a cognitive predisposition to believe the information we receive. Our brains are to a degree wired to expect the truth, because believing what we hear makes our thinking more efficient. If we critiqued every statement and impression for its veracity, it would be difficult to think about anything else. Studies have found that it can be very difficult to overcome our truth bias, even when we have reason to be suspicious.
Other elements of the Liar's Advantage, though, are not psychological, but rather practical. To illustrate one of the most powerful elements of the Liar's Advantage, let's return to Ortiz. Whether or not they use steroids, baseball players improve their hitting through practice. They spend hours with coaches and pitching machines, refining their swings to maximinze their performance. This is characteristic, too, of how we acquire and improve upon any skill. We practice, identifying what works, eliminating bad habits, and generally making ourselves better hitters, or piano players, or German-speakers, or whatever it might be.
Identifying deception is a skill, too. At least in theory, we should be able to get better at it with practice. The problem with practicing lie detection, though, is that there is usually no way to know whether we're doing it successfully. Sure, we could accuse every person we suspect of lying of being dishonest, but this is hardly a practical way to carry-out day-to-day conversation. And, of course, just because we catch someone in a lie and confront them doesn't mean they'll admit to their deceit.
This difficulty in practicing lie detection means most of us can't get better at it. It's as if David Ortiz had to take batting practice with his eyes closed. He can swing and swing and swing, but he can't tell whether his swings are effective. In just the same way, we can guess and guess and guess, but we can't tell whether our guesses about deceit are accurate or not. When they lie to us, then, liars are challenging us to use a skill (lie detection) that it is almost impossible to master. This, along with other factors, gives them their advantage in fooling us.
Unfortunately, then, I can't offer my friends any reassurances about the honesty of other baseball players-or anyone in society, for that matter. When it comes to spotting lies, we are usually just swinging blind.