- Insincere behavior may be saying or doing what an individual believes others want to hear or to gain favor to reap future rewards.
- Many of us have difficulty recognizing or accepting when we are being duped and used by people who are insincere.
- Apologies and promises to change are not as powerful as one may believe. Actions speak louder than words.
How do you know if you are being played?
Sincerity is a characteristic that enhances the beginning and continuance of relationships. It's an important quality in establishing and maintaining trust among the parties. We readily recognize insincerity in surface interactions. When we say, “Hi, how are you?” to a co-worker as we get on an elevator or any of a myriad of day-to-day, routine interactions, we really don’t want to hear the answer. Rather, this type of superficial politeness is a social lubricant. It allows these routine interactions to proceed in a socially agreed-upon insincere manner. However, for those with whom we have substantial personal relationships, recognizing insincerity is a complicated and different ballgame altogether.
People who are adept at duping others gain the upper hand by convincing them that they are genuine and caring. That they are a good person who has the best interest of others in mind. They can also be manipulative, using flattery to deflect criticism or using sympathy to avert blame. This can be the trap they want the trusting person to fall into, namely, re-establishing your trust by offering solicitous excuses or profuse apologies.
Recognizing your psychological blind spots
Our psychological need to believe that what we have with others is real can impede our ability to detect insincerity. We have psychological blind spots when it comes to those we believe love us. We assume, and in fact need, the significant others in our lives (e.g., spouse, best friend, parent, child, close colleague) to be genuine in their interactions with us. But the truth is there are relationships that we believe are genuine in their closeness but, in fact, are not. We have blind spots—perhaps most potently in romantic relationships. Many of us have difficulty recognizing or accepting that we are being duped and used by people we believe love us and who we genuinely love. Our psychological need to believe that what we have with others is real can impede our ability to detect insincerity. In other words, we need to believe that the close people in our lives are not phonies.
Although we understand, in theory, that it is actions and not words that matter, when a person we are close to says one thing but does another, we develop excuses for their behavior; we accept without substantial consideration why they do not follow through with their word. Dishonest relationships exploit rather than enhance the other person. Consider these elements of psychological blind spots that keep you from recognizing insincerity in a relationship:
- Having a high tolerance level for excuses
- Being generous to a fault and accepting the other’s shortcomings
- Being fearful of confronting the other person, as they may leave you
- An unwillingness to accept that the person is dishonest despite numerous incidents
- Doubting your gut instincts as the person gives the appearance of honesty
- Lacking self-confidence and second-guessing yourself by wondering if you have correctly assessed that the person’s actions are insincere
- Believing that confronting the person with their inconsistencies will make you look silly, foolish, or needy
Removing the blinders
If we are blind to the insincerity of someone we care about, how can we recognize when we are being played? Duplicity or deceitfulness is a key marker that the relationship is not genuine. Jones and Paulhus (2017) suggest that there are shades of dishonesty. On the malevolent end, there is the "dark triad," identified as intense self-focus (pathological narcissism), exploitive interpersonal motivations (Machiavellianism), and chronic deceitfulness (psychopathy). Unfortunately, it may take a few instances of being “burned” to remove the blinders. This school of “hard knocks learning” is painful. It may be lessened by doing an “after-action review,” which is a process used by organizations to understand what went wrong in a business investment or other endeavor.
Review the times the person made a promise and did not follow through. Consider whether these characteristics frequently emerge:
- Excuse maker: They engage in excuses, justifications, or implausible explanations of why they failed to keep their word.
- Sweet talker: They appear genuinely upset, and express contriteness when they failed to follow through; yet even after this expression of distress they continue to behave in the same way again and again.
- Offended stance: They are offended and dismissive when confronted with their inconsistency.
- Blamer: They blame you for having unrealistically high expectations; or, that you chronically misunderstand what was promised.
- Superficial apologizer: Apologizing and promising not to do it again; but doing it again.
- Good actor: Although apologies can be powerful in eliciting forgiveness, any unexpected emotions witnessed during the apology (e.g., a lack of sadness, happiness, smiling) are suspect, as are some expected ones (crying—is it genuine?).
- Pathological liar: There are numerous instances of secrecy, unclear communication, deliberate attempts to be misleading, or claiming a high need for privacy as the reason for failing to disclose information about themselves and their past.
Actions speak louder than words
Behaviors relating to sincerity include honesty, openness, and receptivity. By engaging in these behaviors, relationships can be formed and continued even during difficult times. On the other hand, behaviors that relate to insincerity include being deceptive, ultra-smooth, and acting pretentiously or self-righteously. Experience teaches us what is truly valuable and what is genuine. Researchers have found that there is a link between openness and emotional closeness with others. Authentic relationships are characterized by a willingness to be honest and forthcoming. The ultimate focus, however, should not be on words said, but on actions performed. In assessing sincerity, actions do speak louder than words.
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Anderson, D. E., Ansfield, M. E., & DePaulo, B. M. (1999). Love’s best habit: Deception in the context of relationships. In P. Philippot, R. S. Fedman, & E. J. Coats (Eds.), The social context of nonverbal behavior, (pp. 372–409). Cambridge University Press.
Jones, D. N., & Paulhus, D. L. (2017). Duplicity among the dark triad: Three faces of deceit. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 113(2), 329–342. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspp0000139