We all wind up encountering people in our lives who feel their goals and ambitions should not be hampered by such a minor obstacle as the truth. Those who feel entitled, for whatever reason, to have everything they want without being bogged down by the boring, time-consuming, and potentially exhausting process of trying to earn them legitimately. Whether it is financial wealth, public status, power, influence, or merely the emotional pay-off of feeling they have the upper hand sadly there are plenty of people who become addicted to false immediate-gratification or the ‘liar’s shortcut’.
Sometimes the consequences of those lies are as minor as convincing people to see a movie which doesn’t measure up to its hype, trying a new brand of soup which ends up tasting awful, getting caught doing something a sibling claimed your parents had given the okay. But the consequences can also be far more devastating. Destruction of relationships, crippling financial losses, horrendous erosion of personal freedoms, and yes even death. The lie itself is not particularly destructive but the consequences of the actions taken based upon believing the lie can be enormously so, whether at the personal or the nationally political level.
All living things are wired with an element of laziness. We don’t want to work any harder than we feel we have to, we only exert ourselves for a perceived purpose. Birds don’t build their nest and then build three more just because they possess the physical capacity to do so. A lioness doesn’t tackle its prey to the ground and then continue chasing around it in circles until dropping from exhaustion. When bringing the groceries in from the car we don’t circle three blocks around our house before going inside or make nine more trips back and forth from the car to the kitchen simply because the two different locations continue to exist.
Not only do all organisms have their physical limits, which can sometimes prevent us from fully completing our objectives, but when presented with an option which will achieve the same goal but appears to require less effort we are all drawn to choose the path of lesser resistance. The greater the problem solving capacity the more options we can conceive. The crux between honesty and the ‘liar’s shortcut’ is our perception of necessary effort.
We each have our own personal perspective on the world and those perspectives always differ at least to some degree, sometimes only slightly and sometimes drastically. Compromising and adapting to the perspectives of others is part living in any group or society but there is a big difference between framing something in the most effective way and being deliberately deceitful.
The two core distortions which act as the bedrock for all subsequent choices to use deception as a tool to achieve our goals are 1) the notion that if we want something it is already ours and the world is thereby obligated to give it to us and 2) the immediate gratification of our personal wants supersedes any potential consequences to anyone else.
Our own goals and circumstances will always ranks as most important to us because we are only able to live inside our own minds. Even those of us who devote ourselves to charitable work on behalf of others are taking on a set of personal goals to achieve specific results.
The goals and circumstances involved in pursuing them are still our own whether we directly receive the benefits and rewards of achieving them or not. Some of us have people in our lives we hold as being more important than ourselves, healthily or not, but the goals we pursue remain ours because we have simply adopted their goals as our own.
Once we embrace the distortions that wanting something makes it ours and consequences to other people don’t matter the math and reason of all further decisions and strategies becomes warped. Rather than working to build and earn things of our own we view the world as trying to deny or take away what is ours.
We don’t generate these distortions purely on our own. We are sold them in various different ways from the world around us. The marketing machinery of our consumer culture is filled with images and messages promising us ‘if we can see it we can be it’, ‘yours now with zero down’, and the internet contribution of ‘buy it now’.
Nothing inspires us to fork over the cash like the impression the things we want is essentially already ours, especially when that message is linked arm-and-arm with the notion that buying the thing will bring us lasting happiness and fulfilment.
Living an honest life is not merely about being transparent and true to our perspectives it is also about making every effort to ensure our perspectives are as clear-eyed and accurate as possible. The messages and information coming at us are all aimed at achieving an objective. Some of them of are conscientious of potential consequences for others and some are not, some deliberately disregard them.
Lies, deceptions, and misinformation (all words for essentially the same thing) can be very seductive and convincing, especially since it is our personal fears and desires they attempt to use as leverage. The key to avoiding being drawn in and victimized by them is to be alert as possible. To resist the impulse to emotionally buy in immediately and instead maintain a healthy skepticism, a critical eye on the look out for the telling signs.
This listing is by no means exhaustive but here are a range of clear indicators which can been seen in the two most important aspects of a message someone is pushing at you, features of the presentation itself and how the presenter reacts to critical thinking questions.
Features of The Presentation
#1 : They are the only ones telling the truth, everyone else is lying
This can be claimed with very impassioned thumping of chests and often a persuasive sounding lists of all the reasons you shouldn’t trust anyone else but the moment this becomes part of any messaging big flags should start waving and loud alarm bells should start ringing, for two reasons.
The first is no single person ever holds sole custody of the truth. Yes, we all have our own perspectives which will invariably differ at least to some degree. But for anyone to claim their specific perspective is the only one which is at all accurate should sound as far more suspect than it is reaffirming. Especially since it is almost always doubled down on with accusations that not only is everyone else wrong they are also involved in a conspiracy against the one lone truth teller.
The second is that staking out absolute claims like this are in fact far less about the subject matter and are instead purely about demanding absolute loyalty. This sort of claim leans heavily on the compelling image of the lone hero against the evil army and is most often phrased first and foremost around calls to ‘listen to me and no one else’ rather than ‘here are the facts no one else is sharing’. It’s also worth noting that people making this kind of claim also spend far more time talking about how others are lying than about their own supposedly correct and exclusive information.
It is true, there are times when coordinated groups with shared agendas will work to undermine or silence contradicting voices and information. We see it in industrial lobbying, such as efforts to sustain dependence on fossil fuels, and we see it societal and organizational levels, such as the culture of protecting powerful men who committed sexual harassment and assault.
Whistleblowers do come forward, often facing intense and even dangerous opposition, but what they come forward with is their evidence and information not claims of being the sole truth teller. Genuine whistleblowers spend virtually all their time talking about the issue and information not themselves which makes it relatively easy to spot the difference.
#2 : Act now, I’ll show you the proof later
It is far easier for someone attempting deception to spark up and play off of our emotions than to try and convince us with false or ‘alternative’ facts. It is far simpler to get someone so angry they don’t care about evidence than to fabricate legitimate seeming persuasive false evidence.
This claim is relatively easy to spot because any and all claims about the information they supposedly have are about how shocking, salacious, top secret, damning, and horrible it all is. All without actually revealing the information itself.
Anyone claiming they know shocking secrets about someone or something that would turn our stomachs is not informing, they are manipulating. Unless they are actually providing us with information upon which to make our own decisions what they are in fact asking for is full control over our ability to form our own opinions.
And having one or two select people they have supposedly shared these shocking secret facts with who then confirm how horrible and damning it all is but offer nothing about the information itself is peer pressure not verification.
Any calls to action, to join the cause, to make contributions or donations, to make personal sacrifices, to mobilize based only on the promise of eventually being shown the secrets which demand such devotion and compliance should smell very, very, very fishy.
#3 : They boast and threaten a ‘bombshell’ without actually sharing it
A very close cousin is the claim that the ‘big bombshell reveal’ is coming very soon, any day, this week, next week, essentially any other time than the current moment. It may not include a specific call to action but is always a call for attention. A cliff-hanger which neither confirms nor denies if there is even actually a cliff.
This sort of salacious carrot dangling is far more about self-aggrandizing than imparting crucial information. There are times when people chose a most strategically advantageous moment to reveal important facts but sounding one’s own drum roll in advance not only reduces that eventual impact by giving those with potential vulnerability time to prepare but also speaks to either an instinctive or conscious awareness that the fear, anxiety, and apprehension generated by the ominous warnings will likely have far more impact than the eventual purported reveal itself.
#4 : Claims to authority by association rather than personal expertise
This one takes the form of things like ‘My brother is a judge so I know the law’, ‘My sister lives with a doctor so I know how to combat illness’, or ‘My former roommate was in a movie with Brad Pitt so I know how Hollywood works’.
It is very true those we are surrounded with and connected to can have very powerful influence over our lives and development, for better or worse. But having a connection to someone, even a very close one, does not automatically confer all of their knowledge, skills, and expertise onto us.
We could be married to a professional photographer for decades but, unless we are actively involved in photography yourself, while we will likely know more about photography than the average person we will almost certainly only know a fraction of what our spouse does.
There is also a very big difference between claiming we have been told something by someone who is an expert in that area, which is an appeal to their authority not our own, or being able to confirm something with an expert we are connected to and claiming that our connection to them grants us the full authority of their expertise. Others can help us build and develop our own expertise but we don’t automatically know what they know just because we know them.
Reactions to Critical Questions
#5 : Anything other than full agreement or flattery is an attack
One of the most common and easy to spot reactions which mark someone as not only being primarily interested in power but also likely being less than truthful is the automatic, and sometimes pre-emptive, claim that anyone who is not with them is against them.
Again, we all have our own perspectives which will sometimes match a great deal and sometimes not at all. When any challenge, question, or contradiction is immediately warped into an accusation filled war over motivations rather than substance it is a clear and strong indicator the information or issue at hand is merely acting as a prop to serve an agenda focused first and foremost on power and control.
We all like to be right, we all like to win but those of us who have a genuine desire to seek accurate and truthful information and materials to utilize in striving towards our goals not only welcome questions we seek them. We want to scrutinize and test our sources, materials, and information to ensure they are as valid and trustworthy as possible.
When we have genuine confidence in something we are not afraid of questions or challenges. If we have scrutinized and tested our information and choices we don’t feel terrified they will be toppled by any question which might come along. Both because we have done the vetting work to generate that confidence and because in doing so we have made having the best and most accurate information a priority. Thus meaning we would want to know if wound up getting some or all of it wrong.
A genuine search for knowledge begins with the understanding that we can never know everything and it is a certainty we will at times get some things wrong. Anyone claiming, or demanding, that others must acknowledge them as ‘right’ at all times is searching for something else.
#6 : They make it about personal character rather than answer the question
This has already been a theme throughout this list but it also rears its head in a very singular and noticeable way when someone who is being deceptive gets questioned or challenged. Rather than address the challenge with more information or further clarification they seek to villainize the person presenting it. The time honored tradition of avoiding the question by invalidating the person asking.
It’s an approach which goes by many familiar names, gaslighting, victim blaming, ‘making it personal’ and follows the theme of diverting attention and energy into emotional reactions focused on being declared the winner and away from the actual issue at hand.
When any and every question or challenge is branded an attack by a villain it reveals not only that power and dominance are the person’s primary focus it also indicates a lack of confidence in their information, or awareness of its illegitimacy. If we are genuinely confident our information can speak for itself we let it.
#7 : Here come the gish gallops and whataboutisms
Other diversionary tactics aim to steer the conversation away from the issue at hand by entangling it in other topics, preferably as many as possible. Whataboutisms are probably the most prominent and well known of these and one which has been gaining more and more prominence is the gish gallop.
Whataboutisms are quietly simply non-answering redirections. When you ask a toddler why they hit their sibling and they point out your spouse yells at the dog. When a company is challenged about the equality of its hiring practices and it points out other companies have moved their factories overseas. When the response to being challenged over moves to restrict voting rights is to point out human rights violations in China.
The whataboutism is an attempt to accuse the questioner of not caring about something else and then make that alleged disregard far more important, and egregious, than what the initial question was addressing.
The gish gallop, a term coined by Anthropologist Eugenie Scott in the 1990’s and named after Creationist Duane Gish who was infamous for using it during debates, is a method of stacking together multiple claims in rapid fire short order all of which are either extremely weak on their own or completely false but centered around at least one small and often barely related truth.
The goal is to swamp the opponent with too many different assertions to effectively unpack and address, ‘starting 10 fires in 10 minutes’ as neuroscientist Ben Harris describes it. If they are not able to address all of the claims completely they lose. If they acknowledge the one small truth it thereby validates all the other claims and they lose.
Mitt Romney was widely panned for employing this in his debates against Barack Obama and it is now an almost standard tool for pundits on all platforms. It takes far longer to address and debunk nonsense than it takes to spew it, especially during TV segments where there simply isn’t the time or on Twitter where we can make 6 claims in one tweet and our followers will be off and reacting without bothering to wait for someone to take the time to tackle them all, or taking the time to read if they did.
When the framing of a topic or the response to a question diverts attention away from the original issue at hand and does so in a way designed to make it either difficult or neigh well impossible to constructively address them once again things should start to smell very, very fishy.
The decisions we make and the actions we take based on them can potentially have enormous impact on our lives and on the lives of those around us, some intentional and others completely unanticipated. It holds true whether we base them in purely instinctive and emotional reaction or in measured and considered critical analysis.
We are always trying to do the best we can with the information and capacities we have available to us in the moment but there will be people we encounter who have embraced those two distortions, that what they want is therefore theirs and consequences for others do not matter, who will be more than happy to manipulate our feelings and perceptions to their benefit alone.
The only we can ensure the best we are trying to do is not being misdirected by the manipulations of others is to always remain alert for the signs and warnings of deception. Some people are able to present their lies in very charming, convincing, and seductive ways. Some people are very good at and have navigated through their entire lives doing so.
But many of the signs are relatively easy to spot if we give ourselves a moment to breathe and consider. And to ask questions, both of them and ourselves.
If every exchange is always about declaring them the winner, being blindly loyal, and all questions are either diverted and unanswered or branded as attacks the fishy smell should be almost overwhelming. In which case either proceed with vigilant caution, and prepared escape plans, or take several strong steps back.
It takes far more work, stress, and effort to maintain a lie than it does to do the legitimate work in the first place. Not to mention the legitimate work smells far better and the results last much longer.