The most outlandish lies can fool even the most intelligent folks. That became apparent when I was a teenager in the 1980s.
I fell for a big one.
He was the cool dad — the one who worked in the music biz and handed out demo cassettes of hot new artists he was shopping around to record labels. We were awe-struck. A bunch of teens on Long Island with access to music from the next Bon Jovi.
You could imagine how much cooler he became when we found out cool dad was on the verge of signing Whitney Houston.
Months later, he still hadn’t signed Houston. The hot new bands he had discovered in shabby night clubs never secured their record deal.
We later learned that cool dad woke up one morning and declared himself an independent music executive. To jumpstart his business, he perpetrated lie upon lie in a scheme to secure “financing” from his rich father in law.
From all accounts, he really did believe he was one hurdle away from achieving greatness. That’s what made his lies hard to detect.
Thirty-five years later, the village schemer still exists, but he’s dwarfed by the gaggle of crackpots hocking conspiracy theories on social media.
The hardest ones to spot aren’t the conmen of old, twirling their mustaches peddling snake oil treatments for cancer. They’re well-dressed men and women with fancy degrees who speak with professionalism and appeal to our darkest fears and prejudices. They possess the creds of well-reasoned truth-tellers, yet they’re full of shit. To make matters worse, many of them believe what they preach.
How do you ferret out the nonsense?
Sure, you can research, but there aren’t enough hours in the day to unravel the mounds of crap floating around from seemingly respectable people.
Before you plunge down a gopher’s tunnel of misinformation, it helps to first question someone’s motives. By doing so, you can assess their credibility, and if not reject their claims, remain skeptical until you can verify.
The five motives that help you spot a liar
The motives for telling falsehoods could fill up volumes, but most can be grouped into five categories. With practice, you’ll become a healthy skeptic, adept at separating truth from lies even when the liar believes their falsehoods.
The Sinclair motive
When Enron Corporation collapsed in 2001, accounting firm Arthur Andersen got caught in the crosshairs. Months after Enron’s demise, Arthur Andersen surrendered its license to practice.
Regulators, politicians, and the general public demanded to know how they could be so inept at missing the warning signs. The answers are numerous but best summed up in a quote by Upton Sinclair.
“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
By extension, if someone’s livelihood depends on perpetuating a belief or theory, you should question their claim. Consider it doubtful unless proven otherwise.
If their income stream rests on a belief that a fraudulent client isn’t committing fraud, they’ll cling to any shred of hope to make it so. They believe rumor as fact. They connect dots that shouldn’t be connected. To tie it all together, they concoct tidy theories to make it all sound reasonable.
The Buffet motive
When attorney Cleta Mitchell’s involvement on the infamous Raffensberger call to overturn the election became known, her once prominent status plummeted. A few days later, she was out of a job. Her reputation, and that of her other accomplices, now lies in ruin.
Warren Buffet famously said, “It takes twenty years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.”
It’s no wonder Mitchell tried to keep her involvement quiet until the audiotape surfaced.
Most folks go to great lengths to enhance and protect their reputation. It’s a survival instinct. In the most extreme cases, it ends with embellishment, lies, and denial of facts. They stretch the truth and lie by omission to protect their reputation.
If someone purports a claim and proving it false would damage their reputation, you should question its validity.
The Wilde motive
In his book, Sapiens, Yuval Harari writes, “You can never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven.”
Only humans can buy into fiction. Belief in fiction allows us to cooperate on a mass scale. But it also means we buy into questionable theories and defend them aggressively.
Oscar Wilde stated the obvious when he wrote, “A thing is not necessarily true because a man dies for it.”
It’s easy to question religious fanatics who kill in the name of their beliefs. It’s more difficult to doubt someone unwilling to die for their belief but willing to risk their reputation and status because they believe in the fiction with a religious conviction.
Unlike the Buffet motivation, the person isn’t lying to defend their reputation. Instead, they lie and risk their good name because they believe what they preach.
It’s common for us humans to give credence to a man or woman who speaks with conviction and passion, but those qualities don’t make a falsehood true.
The Godfather motive
Would you lie to protect a sibling or child? Not everyone would, but even those who can’t bring themselves to sell an outright fiction accept lying by omission as an honorable alternative.
From the book, The Godfather, one quote sums up this motivation. “The strength of a family, like the strength of an army, lies in its loyalty to each other.”
To protect someone we love, we may do things we wouldn’t do under normal circumstances. We might lie, withhold facts, or perpetuate a falsehood.
Whenever someone tries to convince you of a theory, belief, or story and, in doing so, defends someone they love, their motive should raise a red flag.
The Orwell motive
According to a recent poll, 76% of Republicans still believe widespread fraud occurred in the 2020 presidential election — the “Big Lie,” as some have called it.
Of all the reasons to question someone’s story, the attainment of power and the refusal to relinquish it make for the most potent motive.
George Orwell wrote, “We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it.”
As we’ve seen with recent electoral events, even those who haven’t seized power, but were granted it, can also vice-grip it for dear life. The power motive isn’t limited to politicians. Business, community, and even members of individual households can lie as a means of holding onto or acquiring power. They tell their fib so often, they may even come to believe it.
When someone tells or perpetuates a story, idea, or belief that enhances their ability to gain or tighten their grip on power, consider it suspect until proven otherwise.
All of these motives share one common thread. Self-interest. Whatever we believe serves our self-interest can motivate us to ignore the truth, spread falsehoods, and convince ourselves we’re justified in doing so.
In the age of misinformation, it’s our duty to question the motives of those who try to persuade us into believing what they believe. Healthy skeptics might be the last people on earth grounded in reality.