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The truth about lying: It’s easier to detect than you think

In her new book, former federal law enforcement investigator Janine Driver explains how to avoid problems and pain by discerning when people aren't being honest with you. Here is an excerpt from "You Can't Lie to Me: The Revolutionary Program to Supercharge Your Inner Lie Detector and Get to the Truth." Imagine this scenario: You are about to become a mother for the first time. You and your husban
Image: Book cover for "You Can't Lie to Me"
/ Source: TODAY books

In her new book, former federal law enforcement investigator Janine Driver explains how to avoid problems and pain by discerning when people aren't being honest with you. Here is an excerpt from "You Can't Lie to Me: The Revolutionary Program to Supercharge Your Inner Lie Detector and Get to the Truth."

Imagine this scenario: You are about to become a mother for the first time. You and your husband prepare your home as you eagerly await your little baby boy’s arrival. Just a month before you’re due to bring him home, you are selected by your peers to win the highest award possible for a person in your profession. In a very public celebration, your entire industry’s community surrounds you to exuberantly shower you with praise and accolades.

During the most touching moment of your acceptance speech, you turn to your husband and declare, “This is all worthwhile because of you — you showed me what love is.”

After a whirlwind celebration party and lots of congratulations from all your friends and colleagues, you ride home with your man, holding hands and smothering him with kisses. After you make love in the bed you’ve shared for five years, you drift off to sleep, blissfully aware that you have had, hands down, the best day of your life.

And that’s where the dream ends.

You wake up to find out that, while you’ve been slaving away on extended business trips, your husband has been having unprotected sex with a professional stripper — and she’s decided she needs to tell the whole world about it.

You may not be Sandra Bullock. But you could imagine what Jesse James’s betrayal felt like — the ultimate sucker punch to the gut.

We’ve all experienced a sucker punch at some point — and if not quite at this level of evil, still hurtful. Whether it was when your best friend stole your date for the junior prom or your closest colleague stole your idea at work, you’ve experienced that crushing moment when the realization of the lie and the betrayal sets in.

As painful as that was — how many other lies are you missing? Would spotting them help you avoid other drama or heartache down the road?

In this chapter, we take a look at some of the biggest truths and misconceptions about lying, and how both can lead even the most committed truth finder astray. We also take a quiz to see how strong your own BS Barometer is right now, before you start the You Can’t Lie to Me program. Ultimately, once you’ve completed the program, you’ll instinctively surround yourself with more genuine, authentic, honest people from the very first time you meet them.

Fight the powers that be

No, you may not be Sandra Bullock — but you can feel her pain. And you may also not be Kyra Sedgwick or Kevin Bacon — but you can imagine how it would feel if your entire life savings, money that you and your wife had worked together to save for more than twenty years, was stolen in one fell swoop by one horrible man.

When Bernie Madoff was caught in December 2008, he had a shocking $65 billion in fictitious investments in 4,900 client accounts. All told, his investors — including charitable foundations, Holocaust survivors, hundreds of unlucky widows and pensioners — lost about $20 billion of real principal. Twenty billion dollars of their hard-earned money. Mysteriously gone.

For years, this infamous Con King was somehow able to look hundreds of people in the eye without arousing suspicion, all the while knowing he was robbing them blind. Madoff stuffed his pockets and walked away whistling, without ever seeming to feel a twinge of guilt.

Who could do such a thing? How could anyone who treated others that way live with himself? And how do these people get away with it? Now, not just your average scumbag can pull off a scam on the order of $20 billion and bilk thousands of “marks.” But plenty of people can easily lie without thinking twice.

In fact, every person lies. Even you. Probably more than you realize. Sometimes we lie to protect other people’s feelings. (Delicious fruit cake, Aunt Suzie!) But sometimes we lie solely to benefit ourselves. And, because you’re an honest human being, you probably feel guilty about this kind of lying — which is what makes you so bad at it.

But chronic liars don’t have that problem. Nor do sociopaths. Nor, it turns out, does your boss. Now, you may like your boss (or even be the boss), and this might have you shaking your head and saying, “Nope, not true.” But bear with me a bit. ...

You’ve heard the expression “Power corrupts,” right? Well, you might be surprised to learn how easy it is for people in powerful positions to lie straight to our faces. Not just those folks who sit in the corner office: anyone who holds power over you — whether his grip is on your paycheck, your mortgage rate, or your heart — can lie to you as easily as tell you the truth.

Here’s how it works: when people in power lie, they focus on rewards more than on costs — they spend much more energy thinking about what they stand to gain than what they stand to lose. This laser focus on rewards protects them from anxiety and makes it easier for them to lie through their teeth. (And Bernie Madoff sure had a lot of “reward” going on, didn’t he?)

People in power enjoy the exact opposite neurobiological effects that people who lie do.

—Lying raises the toxic stress hormone cortisol; power lowers it.

—Lying increases negative emotions; power increases positive emotions.

—Lying hampers your ability to think; power enhances your cognitive function.

All the physical and mental benefits that come with power can make unscrupulous people in power almost immune to guilt, allowing them to lie all the time without ever getting caught. Recently, a group of Columbia University researchers showed just how strong and immediate this “power” effect can be.

In a study of 47 women, researchers put some participants into windowed offices. These women were told they were “leaders” who controlled the salaries of their “subordinates” (who were stuck in dark and dreary cubicles in the hallway). Then the researchers planted $100 bills in nearby piles of books and left. Computers on the workers’ desks randomly asked half the leaders and half the subordinates to “steal” the money — and then asked them to lie about it.

The researchers tested the subjects’ cognitive functioning and took saliva samples to measure stress hormones. They also studied videotapes of their interviews to assess their behavior. They were looking for tiny shoulder shrugs and increased rate of speech, two of the more likely signs of deception.

Another group of the researchers, with no clue as to whether the women were liars or leaders or neither, asked all the participants some basic questions. They wanted to establish what the subjects looked like when they were being truthful — to define their “baseline” behavior.

Then, with all the baseline data in place, the researchers asked all the leaders and subordinates whether or not they stole the money. As they answered, the researchers retested them and analyzed the data.

The results were shocking.

The low-power subordinates who lied showed all the expected signs of deception: slower thinking, higher stress hormones, shoulder shrugs, and faster speech.

The high-power liars?

Nothing. Nada. Not even a twitch.

The researchers found not one detectable physical difference between the higher-power liars and their truthful peers.

After the fact, the liars were asked how they felt about lying. Did they feel bad or guilty at all? But only the liars in lower power positions felt bad. The powerful liars did not feel a thing.

Power acted like conscience Teflon — not only did their dominant position allow them to lie more easily and persuasively, they felt no guilt or remorse.

Researchers are finding more and more evidence that power appears to give its owners a physical and cognitive high that completely blunts and disguises any negative effects of lying. Lie, get away with it, get what you want, and don’t feel a thing — hmm, I could see how that might get slightly addictive!

This power imbalance might affect honesty even in situations that are meant to be positive and protective:

—A teacher with a student

—A doctor with a patient

—A parent with a child

Why would I lie to you?

We’ve seen that liars with power are addicted to potential rewards. They’re only thinking of what they have to gain. Now, on the flip side — for those without the power — what motivates them to lie? Simple. What they have to lose.

Lying, cheating, stealing, and manipulating are definitely not the sole purview of the powerful. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and, for many, these are quite desperate times. When your job or your relationship is on the line, lying can sometimes feel like a necessary act of survival.

Researchers believe that deception started this way, as a result of natural selection. You might call it “survival of the fibbers.” About twelve million years ago, primates started deceiving each other in order to survive during times of dwindling resources. (There can be only one top banana!)

Twelve million years is a long time for fibbers to learn their trade. But for just as long, we’ve been trying to spot them. Why haven’t we learned how to by now?

How do we still get duped by another’s deceit?

Excerpted from "You Can't Lie to Me" by Janine Driver, copyright 2012. Reprinted with permission by HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.