Who tells lies? Well, the obvious answer is that we all do. Some are innocent teases while others fall into the category of whoppers. But what we want to focus on in this column is the impact of the lie and the people who are told them. Author Mark Twain is credited with the quote, “A lie will fly around the whole world while the truth is getting its boots on.” Experience tells us this adage is true.
The following is a timeline of events: I had a best friend in high school named Larry. We both had an English class together taught by first-year teacher Mr. P. We were reading Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Mr. P opined at length that hitting the road was the only real way to learn about life.
As luck would have it, Larry decided to stay home “sick” the next day. It was mentioned to people before school that Larry had decided to take his teacher’s advice and “hit the road” to learn about life. By 8 a.m. Larry’s phone was ringing, and Mr. P was begging him not to go. Having been sound asleep, he was somewhat confused by the request to stay home. By 8:10 a.m. a close friend of Larry’s was confronted by three teachers who seemed unreasonably angry. This confrontation resulted in a spontaneous lie that this was merely a sociological experiment to test how people in the modern-day 1960s would react to someone running off like Tom Sawyer did. While the teachers were incredulous, they lacked proof and had to accept the story, although they required a ten-page paper detailing the findings. Mr. P left later that year to work for the phone company. Later than same year, a rumor circulated that the seniors were planning to release greased pigs in the school—good times.
Fake News and Propaganda
Lies that spread often are surprising or exciting, confirm an existing belief, deal in conspiracy, or play to our emotions. Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels is credited with saying, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” This has been borne out by research published in Psychonomic Bulletin and Review by Lisa Fazio’s team, which found that even highly implausible statements become more believable with repetition. This is true even when the statements were contradicted by the individual’s own knowledge, unless the statements were clearly implausible, such as elephants are smaller than ants. So untrue statements are spread because they are different, exciting, and people are predisposed to believe them.
Adolf Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf, “Slogans should be persistently repeated until the very last individual has come to grasp the idea.” The idea of repetition likely works because people evaluate the information against what they know or believe, so it feels familiar and comfortable after hearing it repeatedly. Psychologists refer to this as an illusory truth effect. As we all know, it is easier to grasp something familiar than to struggle with new information.
Psychologist Jonas de Keersmaecker and other researchers found in their studies that the more often participants saw untrue information, the more likely they were to rate it as real. A Harvard team of scientists found that people who focused on how interesting a statement was were more prone to the illusory effect than those evaluating its accuracy.
Clearly, with the help of social media, a person’s ability to communicate to large numbers of people is easier today than it ever has been. Tweet away, post to Facebook, forward news feeds, and you can communicate to the world. Marketing professionals can take those tools and feed us information that fits our individual tastes. We are peppered with the same information over and over, so it becomes familiar, and we conclude truthful. The problem arises when the information is untrue.
If you have not had the opportunity to watch the documentary Social Dilemma take some time to do so. The documentary revolves around social media and how its algorithms shape the information we receive. By creating patterns of our behavior, the algorithms link us to similar-minded people and topics we might find interesting, even to the point of changing the ads we might see for the same product. More important is the way information might be moved in a search higher or lower based on our online behaviors. This can lead us to pass on information that fits our models and perceptions of the world.
In a study published in Science in 2018, Soroush Vosoughi and his collaborators examined the spread of true and false news on Twitter using six fact-checking organizations to establish the veracity of each string. What they found was that false news reached more people than true stories. This means that the false news was commented on and resent more often than the true information. While true news rarely exceeded a thousand people being included, false news spread to between a thousand and hundred thousand people and did so faster.
This information travel among people makes sense when you think about the following statements: “Mary came to school today” versus “I was surprised Mary came to school today after she was caught.” The first statement is not surprising and is mundane in every way, while the second statement is novel, surprising, and perhaps salacious. Which would be more likely to be passed among the student body?
Some of this may explain why people take a statement at face value without looking for underlying motives or meanings. It is familiar and seen before, so it must be truthful. We trust we must be correct and ignore critical thinking.
Verify to Build Trust
The first step in negotiation is to recognize the other side is going to put a spin on almost everything they tell you, true or false. So logically, we should question everything we are told no matter how often it is said. As we verify information, we can begin to build trust in the information and other parties. Then search for motivations and hidden purposes in the information being offered. Is there a hidden agenda? Are you being persuaded or offered facts, and are those facts true and accurate?
When we meet someone new, we quickly make judgments about them. It might be their appearance, speech, or something from our memory that, rightly or wrongly, gives a shortcut to making a judgment about them. But we should leave room for new information to test our initial judgments and levels of trust.
Accepting information at face value is easy and ignores the critical thinking necessary to truly evaluate the evidence you have. As we listen or read something, we should be asking ourselves basic questions such as: Is this fact or opinion? Is the information attempting to persuade or inform? Are there biases, opinions, or assumptions present? Does the information make sense and have a logical structure? Are there facts that can be verified independently or only vague statements supporting the information? Do I have any bias for or against the material, assumptions, or opinions already?
Almost all information can be viewed from another point of view. Find out what others have said about the information you are considering. See what people, especially those with whom you do not agree, are saying about the same issue. In a meeting, there may be others who are giving clues to their evaluations of the information. A small glance or expression could be a critical clue to what they may be thinking.
Evaluate claims of evidence carefully, such as “these numbers have been certified.” What does “certified” mean? This should bring up another series of questions to probe this area. Truthful stories contain verifiable information, while false stories are more likely to contain vague references that provide no way of checking the details.
As any investigator, evaluate the information and where it comes from, then check it before you pass it along. There are six fact-checking organizations you can use to help if you have doubts. Bookmark them:
- hoax-slayer.com, and
Finally, on a personal note, after over a hundred columns in the magazine, this will be the last for this particular duo. Shane Sturman, Dave Thompson, and the WZ team will continue to provide insights into interviewing and investigation. There are constant changes in interviewing strategies, and they will keep you abreast of them in the coming years. We hope over the last decades you found something of value in our column, which in some small way may have contributed to your success. We would also like to thank Jim Lee and Jack Trlica for allowing us to write for them and their kind support. We wish continued success to LPM and its staff. Best wishes for 2021, and please stay safe.