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Navigating a new age of deception

7 min read


Pamela Meyer is the author of “Liespotting: Proven Techniques to Detect Deception.”


Don’t look now, but the person reading this over your shoulder is a liar. So is the barista who just served you coffee. So are you. We’re all liars.

In fact, studies have shown that we’re regularly told anywhere from 10 to 200 lies each day—up to 12 an hour. From white lies to whoppers, more than three-quarters of these go undetected.

Nor is our fibbing a fresh phenomenon. “The fraud of men was ever so,” wrote Shakespeare, illuminating a human history filled with everything from prehistoric hunters disguising themselves in reindeer skins, to the biblical Cain’s duplicitous denial that he knows his murdered brother Abel’s whereabouts—“Am I my brother’s keeper?”

If humans have been lying for as long as there have been humans, why should anyone care now?

The truth—if I may gingerly use that term—is that our deceit may be old, but our tools are new. Modern communications and social networking have unleashed tremendous gains across the world, but they have also progressively diminished personal contact with our friends (the real ones, not those of the Facebook variety), family, coworkers, and acquaintances. Absent the face-to-face interaction essential to building trust and spotting lies, these technologies have unintentionally ushered in a new era of deception, one in which greater distance begets greater dishonesty, which begets greater damage to the fabric of our society.

The Corporate Take

According to one study, 44% of resumes contain exaggerations or fabrications, including the CVs of one in four C-level executives  While we often assume people slightly embellish their employment histories, some of the falsifications I’ve seen strain the bounds of credulity, such as listing military service from before the applicant’s date of birth, taking credit for work actually performed by the interviewer, or pretending to be a member of the Kennedy family.

It would be funny if falsehoods didn’t exact real costs.

According to the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, in 2010 occupational fraud caused a median loss of $160,000 and lasted for 18 months before detection. More than half the offenders had a college or postgraduate degree, and a full 86% had never been charged with or convicted of a prior offense. The perpetrators rarely fit the profile we expect, though one in five employees nonetheless says they’re aware of fraud in their workplace.

Small businesses—which often lack internal controls, and for whom even small losses can be devastating—represent nearly a third of all reported fraud cases.

In total, deception costs American businesses more than an estimated $994 billion per year—roughly 7% of annual revenue. That’s nearly a trillion dollars of falsified statements, mismanaged assets, check tampering, skimming off the top, kickbacks, and corruption. It turns out that it’s not just the Bernie Madoffs of the world that have sent trust in U.S. businesses plummeting.

A Web of Deception

Compounding this deception epidemic is the proliferation of new media technologies.

In the days when speaking face-to-face was the only way to communicate, dozens of subtle cues—body language, tone of voice, expression—were available to help us assess our companions’ trustworthiness.

But by increasing our ability to communicate from a distance, technology has drastically eroded the innate people-reading methods that our ancestors relied on for thousands of years.

Today, we might log on, get LinkedIn, and get lied to—while barely noticing.

The irony is that while it would seem that technology enhances transparency (see: all manner of misbehavior on YouTube), in many ways it does the opposite – allowing for masked realities, alternate identities, fabricated histories.

No matter how much data we have at our fingertips, there’s simply no substitute for looking someone in the eye and having a conversation. Since eighty percent of human communication is nonverbal, and sixty-five percent occurs through body language, personal interaction provides vital clues to a person’s intentions that online communication obscures. And while videoconferencing may seem like a solution, the locations of the screen and camera make such conversations nominally “face-to-face,” but far from “eye-to-eye.”

Absent probing eyes, lies proliferate. As early as 2004, Cornell researchers monitoring students’ online communications over a one-week period detected lies in 37% of their phone calls, 27% of their face-to-face meetings, 21% of their instant messages and 14% of their e-mails. Though lying occurred less frequently using the latter two forms of online communication, both leave paper trails, explaining their relative honesty-inducing power.

How then, to untangle this web of deception?

Getting Smart About Defeating Deception

One important approach involves strengthening corporate infrastructure and implementing smart anti-deception policies. This can range from setting up a fraud hotline—proven to increase anonymous tips, the most common method of detecting fraud—to conducting a deception audit and establishing formal codes of conduct.

Intelligent regulation of social media use can likewise improve office privacy and security—nothing tips off a competitor that you’re interested in acquiring that struggling Colorado conglomerate like a cheery “Just landed in Denver!” Facebook status update. With so many companies burned by casual use of Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking tools, I predict we’ll see new restrictions if not new wariness on the part of corporations regarding these tools.

And of course, there is no substitute for setting a strong, positive, ethical tone at the top. The most egregious perpetrators overwhelmingly cite “a poor tone at the top” as an impetus for their multimillion-dollar fraudulent activities.

Yet even these institutional improvements will fall short without a concerted effort at all levels to drive more of our interactions towards personal, face-to-face contact—and to give people the tools within those interactions to spot deception.

Untrained, the average human is no better at lie detecting than a chimpanzee. We get it right about half the time. Do police officers, psychologists, internal auditors, CEOs, or really good mothers do better? For the most part, no.

The grade school wish that a liar’s pants will actually burst into flames won’t come true—but liars actually do leave many telltale physical signs. Just a few hours of practice can prepare someone to recognize falsehoods with up to 95% accuracy.

When I train executives, human resources personnel, and security officers, I instruct them in a “liespotting” method I call BASIC, for Baseline, Ask, Study, Intuit, Confirm. Baseline requires that you observe others’ baseline behavior under normal conditions as a reference point (does John always jiggle his knee during conversations?). Then, ask open-ended questions to encourage more information-sharing (“What made you do that?” instead of “What time did you leave work?”). Study clusters of suspicious behavioral signs (qualifying statements, feet pointed towards the door, grooming gestures, weak denials, shifts in blink rate). Intuit statement, logic and emotional gaps in the story (how does John’s narrative mesh with reality?). Lastly, confirm and test your conclusions (e.g. by asking the same question in different ways).

The laundry list of signs to look for is long, but it boils down to being observant, keeping an open mind, and demonstrating a commitment to finding the truth.

Technology created an explosion of favorable conditions for deception. It’s time to push back. We need to step away from our machines and relearn how to communicate face-to-face, how to read people, how to connect and listen.

Ferreting out fraud is not about playing “gotcha,” or even about protecting the bottom line. It is a means of truth seeking—which ultimately leads to trust building. Only in this way can we be confident in our interactions, confident in our decisions, and most importantly, confident in each other.

That, fellow liars, is the truth.