How to Keep From Getting Fooled (Again)

How to avoid getting conned by lovers and liars.

Posted May 03, 2019

How many times in our lives have we been fooled by someone’s lies? In relationships? In business deals? Promises made and broken? (As I think sheepishly about the times I’ve been suckered, I have that song by the Who, “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” running around in my head.) Why are we so often the victim of people who intentionally, or unintentionally, lie or mislead us?

The answer is our trusting nature, systematic cognitive biases, and our inability to adequately arm ourselves against those who try to con us. Here are 3 big reasons we are vulnerable to getting fooled by others:

1. Humans Are Poor Lie Detectors

There is substantial research evidence indicating that people are not very good at detecting lies, and it doesn’t matter much if the person lying to us is a stranger or loved one. Part of the problem is our trusting nature. There is an “honesty bias” that suggests that even if we know that half of the time someone is lying to us, we will still think that more than 50 percent of the statements are true. Another problem is that we fall victim to stereotypes about lying (e.g., a liar won’t make eye contact; a liar looks nervous). For the most part, this tends to throw us off, particularly since good liars know about these biases. In one study, we found that liars were MORE likely to engage in eye contact than when they were telling the truth—overcompensating, so it seems.

2. Cognitive Laziness

Often, we simply don’t expend the effort required to protect ourselves from those who are trying to take advantage of us. We tend to take things, such as advertisements, at face value, rather than checking out whether the information is accurate. This is particularly important when making a major purchase, or when deciding to partner with someone in business or romance. We could do the legwork required to check out the reviews of the product, or we could do some investigating into the character and history of our potential partner, but all too often, we don’t expend the necessary energy.

3. Psychological Weaknesses

We are virtually “programmed” to be easy targets of some psychological influence tactics. Psychologist Robert Cialdini, in his book Influence, discusses the way that expert salespersons and con artists use psychological tactics to take unfair advantage. For example, offering a free gift (think timeshare presentation or free samples at the market) can make us feel “obligated” to make a purchase. Another trick is when salespeople make us think that there is a time limit and we need to “ACT NOW” or miss out on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. If you want to get a good idea of how salespeople can make a lot of money using psychological influence tactics, watch the Home Shopping Network. They use a whole variety of psychological tactics to their advantage.

So, how do we protect ourselves so that we don’t get fooled again?

  1. Engage your brain and your critical thinking skills. Do the work upfront to investigate before you buy. Use Internet resources to read reviews of products.
  2. Be a healthy skeptic. Although we don’t want to go around thinking that everyone is trying to lie to us or rip us off, it is good practice to question. For example, when it comes to detecting lies, it's best to pay close attention to what someone is telling us. We found in our research that we could uncover lies by looking at the “plausibility” of response—in other words, what is the likelihood that the event occurred? (I remember being on a bus, where a talkative passenger was telling the bus driver that he had attended the original Woodstock concert. The passenger was about 50 years old, which meant he had to be in his mother’s womb if he did attend).
  3. Read Cialdini’s book. It outlines the psychological tactics that are used to take advantage of us and offers suggestions on how to combat them.

References

Cialdini, R. (2006). Influence: The science of persuasion. New York: Harper Business.

O'Sullivan, M. (2009). Why most people parse palters, fibs, lies, whoppers, and other deceptions poorly. In B. Harrington (Ed.), From ancient empires to internet dating. (pp. 74-91). Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.

Riggio, R.E. & Friedman, H.S. (1983). Individual differences and cues to deception. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 45(4), 899-915.