Beware the Rationalizations!

People often ask me if people lie to their therapists. Though it seems kind of self-defeating — considering they’re paying for the sessions — I will admit that I’ve gotten pretty good at figuring out when somebody is lying.

Most research on the detection of lying focuses on external behaviors such as blinking, stuttering, and evasive body language. While there may be some merit to these studies, other explanations for such behaviors are possible. On television, for instance, a person may blink excessively because of the bright lights. Sometimes people stutter because they’re confused. Sometimes people don’t make eye contact because they’re shy and insecure, or because they don’t like you. Strictly behavioral theories that attempt to identify liars don’t go deep enough. They look at what the body does, but they totally disregard the thinking and the personality behind the dishonest or evasive behaviors.

To predict whether a person might lie, you need to look at his or her convictions. Examine what he or she says, thinks, and feels in order to uncover his or her underlying beliefs. Examples include, ‘It’s OK to lie when it spares somebody else’s feelings.’ (No, it’s not. It just delays the inevitable, and makes the liar feel virtuous.) Or, ‘It’s OK to lie if it works, and if I fool everybody involved.’ (Are you SURE you fooled everybody?) Another convenient one is, ‘It’s OK to lie if the subject is nobody else’s business.’ (Then why bother saying anything?) And, of course, the old standby, ‘It’s OK to lie if I have a higher, more noble purpose in mind.’ (Oops’there’s that virtuous nonsense again!)

If psychotherapists are experts at anything, it’s at listening to people’s rationalizations; particularly about lying. If you come right out and ask somebody if they believe in these rationalizations, most often they’ll say no. But on an emotional level, human beings have free will and can easily reject something they consider a moral principle.

If someone tells you that they do agree with any of the rationalizations listed above, then consider yourself forewarned! Such a person might lie to you at any time. If you don’t want a husband or a wife who cheats, or a business partner who will steal from you, then spend some time getting to know how he or she thinks. This may sound judgmental, but it’s nothing more than living your life with 20/20 moral vision. And the inescapable fact remains: You’ll never have the security of an honest personal or business relationship with somebody who believes that lying for ‘certain’ reasons is OK.

Actually, many people don’t feel good about lying to others, and do so only in situations where they feel justified in doing so. But most people lie to themselves all the time. They’re dishonest about their motives or intentions, or they refuse to consider facts that are inconvenient to a particular course of action they want to take (ahh, the power of rationalization). ‘Oh, I can afford that car. No need to run the numbers.’ Or, ‘Sure, my husband hits me once in awhile. But deep down he loves me, and he’ll make a great father.’ Or, ‘I don’t have to worry about finding a job. I’ll just quit my current job first.’ We human beings are more intelligent than we give ourselves credit for, and we’re far more dishonest with ourselves than we’ll ever admit.

Sometimes people feel cheated because they trusted another’s faulty judgment. ‘I shouldn’t have listened to Joe. He lied to me!’ It’s more likely that Joe actually believed his own falsehoods, and because you chose to blindly listen to him, he swept you up into his own self-deception. suggests that it’s not magicians or criminal masterminds we need to worry about when it comes to being deceived. We should be most on guard against ourselves. ‘Often we don’t want to know when somebody is lying,’ explains University of Massachusetts psychology professor Robert Feldman. ‘In short, we are programmed to believe compliments and avoid painful truths, both of which make a liar’s task much easier.’

If you don’t want to be the victim of a liar, there are two things I suggest. First, be a critical thinker. Consider whether what a person is telling you makes sense or not. Does it all REALLY add up? Second, if it doesn’t quite make sense, then by all means ask the person to clarify. People often don’t explain things as well as they could or as well as they think they did. But if they’re honest and want you to understand what they’re saying, they will clarify or explain further. If they seem unwilling or defensive about doing this, and what they say still doesn’t add up, then it’s likely you’re being lied to. Pay attention to your intuition, heed the warnings and proceed with caution.