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What Does It Take to Deceive the Deceiver?

New research shows how enjoyable but hard it is to get back at a phony.

Key points

  • When people deceive you, it's tempting to get back at them with your own deception.
  • New research on phoniness and deception suggests that your efforts at retribution may not be all that successful.
  • Rather than engaging in phony talk or deception yourself, you're better off learning how to be on guard when people try to fool you.

It can feel terrible to be the target of someone else’s deception, especially if it costs you money or puts your reputation at stake. The only way to overcome this unpleasant experience, you might think, would be to find a way to get back at them. However, how easy is it to deceive the deceiver?

Perhaps someone on an email chain comes up with a ridiculous story about you that is clearly a complete fabrication. They say that you neglected to send along an important file that everyone in the chain needed to be able to progress on a group project. You’ve got the evidence that you did in fact send it, so you reply immediately to set the record straight.

Now that this matter is resolved, you start to conjure up a way to get back at the person. How about making up your own story? You don’t want to out and out lie to the whole group, but you could at least try to come up with a way to get even.

The Double Pleasure of Deceiving the Deceiver

According to FernUniversität in Hagen’s Christian Blötner and TU Dormand University’s Sebastian Bergold (2022), a common quote attributed to Niccolò Machiavelli states, “It is double pleasure to deceive the deceiver.” Although the authenticity of this quote can’t be known for sure, Blötner et al. note that people high in the personality trait of Machiavellianism (Mach), who constantly attempt to exploit and lie to others, would seem to be excellent targets for retribution by the people they try to misuse.

In the words of the German researchers, the behavior of making up stories (which they refer to as “B.S.’ing”) goes beyond betrayal and cheating to the spreading of “information expressed with indifference for truth, meaning or accuracy which is supposed to impress, persuade or mislead others for individual advantages.”

Noting the difference between spreading deliberate lies and just making up “pseudo profound statements” that “represent arrangements of random buzzwords,” the German researchers suggest that it’s still possible for people high in Mach to use this manipulative tactic to attain their egotistic if not psychopathic goals. The question then becomes whether, in fact, these individuals can be as easily misled as they are to spread their own falsehoods.

You might argue that because they’re so good at using deception and misinformation, people high in Mach would be uniquely qualified in the art of skepticism when it comes to figuring out whether other people’s words can be trusted. However, Blötner and Bergold maintain that Mach comes in two varieties. In Mach “approach,” individuals use persuasion to try to spread lies and phony information. In Mach “avoidance,” these highly manipulative people use their powers to prevent themselves from becoming victims of the tricks of their trade.

Phoniness detection, then, might be higher in those who fit into the Mach avoidant category, because they are on the lookout for others who might be aiming to put one over on them. For those high in Mach approach, however, the opposite might be the case. In this variety of Mach, individuals feel so well-qualified to put others under their spell they might not “pay abundant attention to situational cues requiring scrutiny.” These are the people who will spread, but also fall for, fake news.

Are the Machiavellians Really Good at Avoiding Being Fooled?

As you can see from this approach-avoidance distinction, Machiavelli’s quote (if he indeed said it) requires clarification. Using a sample of 525 online participants (average age 24 years old), the authors developed a scale to assess phoniness detection which they abbreviated as “B.S.R” (the “R” standing for “receptivity”) with items containing “pseudo-profound” phrases such as “Hidden meaning transforms ‘unparalleled abstract beauty,” and “pseudo-scientific” phrases such as “Energy can deteriorate based on closed-circuit alliterations of an afocal system.” Participants rated each set of items on their profundity or scientific validity.

To measure personality, the authors administered standard Mach tests. A sample Mach Approach item asked participants to rate themselves on items such as “I tend to manipulate others to get my way.” A sample Mach Avoidance item is “Anyone who completely trusts anyone else is asking for trouble.” Additionally, noting that people lower in cognitive ability would be lower in BSR, the authors also administered measures of verbal and nonverbal reasoning.

Finally, to measure the frequency that individuals themselves engaged in their own phony talk, the authors administered the “persuasive” scale consisting of items such as: “In my daily life, I embellish, exaggerate, or otherwise stretch the truth when I want to impress the person or people I’m talking to” and the “evasive” scale with items such as “‘In my daily life, I embellish, exaggerate, or otherwise stretch the truth just a little when a direct answer might get me in trouble.”

Using scores on these measures, the authors tested their theoretical model predicting scores on the pseudo-profound and pseudo-scientific receptivity scales from Mach scores, frequency of phony talk, and intelligence. The findings showed that, in line with the study’s predictions, whether you can deceive the deceiver depends on which type of deceiver it is.

For those high in the persuasive form of phoniness, yes, it’s pretty easy to launch a deception; in the words of the German authors: “If you think of a manipulative guy who wants to come ahead at your expense, he will most likely use inflated and impressive words.” By contrast, the “avoiding Machiavelli” “cannot be deceived very easily because he is distrusting and distrustful of others.”

One caution that Blötner and Bergold note is that you also have to take into account an unmeasured factor not included in this study—namely antagonism. In other words, nasty people could engage in the kind of pseudo talk involved in this study just for their own amusement. Their antagonism could also lead them to avoid being taken in because of their inherent suspiciousness toward anyone and everyone.

Is it Worth Trying to Deceive the Deceiver?

Returning to the example of that person in the group email chain, this study supports the wisdom of thinking twice before you try to exact the kind of revenge that could make you feel better, as it could only backfire. What’s to stop that person from forwarding your own deceptive message, leading you to be the one who looks like a liar?

The study also suggests the value of turning on your own detectors for information that falls into one of the two pseudo categories. Being taken in by someone’s fancy words could lead you not only to make poor decisions, but also to become complicit in their own web of fake news. Perhaps you can learn something from the Mach avoidant individual and consider the source when something comes your way that sounds impressive but might have very little basis in fact.

To sum up, the study suggests there is very little value in becoming a deceiver even if you’re trying to get back at the person who’s lied to you. Remaining vigilant for pseudo information is important for your own well-being, but so is holding off from the temptation to participate in its spread.

References

Blötner, C., & Bergold, S. (2022). It is double pleasure to deceive the deceiver: Machiavellianism is associated with producing but not necessarily with falling for b***s***. British Journal of Social Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjso.12559

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