Saturday, May 21, 2011

Even Politicians Lie: The "Shocking" Epidemic of Deceit

I have just finished reading an article about British politician Chris Huhne, whose estranged wife, having known for a while of one instance of infidelity during their marriage, has, through her lawyer, expressed her “shock” at the allegation that he may have had yet another lover!

This is the same Chris Huhne alleged to have had issues with his parliamentary expenses and who, his wife claimed, during their marriage asked people to take responsibility for motoring offenses he committed. So she knew he was a liar but is shocked that he lied. I am, well, shocked!

This story is instructive, if taken at face value (a huge stretch of the imagination please), because it demonstrates how easily we can be lied to and then how quick we are to forgive, seemingly forget, and then place liars back on the pedestals that should be reserved for the honest!

There is the old adage (that George Bush famously botched): “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” So what can we do to help prevent anyone from being fooled even once? The bottom line is that we could protect ourselves to a large degree from liars if we screened effectively and also refused to allow the “comeback” of proven liars.

Look at the news on any given day and it is filled with stories of deceit or allegations of deceit. Politicians, business people, parties involved in litigation; the list goes on.

As someone who has studied, and practiced in, the areas of deception detection and human influence I am always looking for signs of deceit and trying to analyze the reason why any given individual is, as was once famously said by a British politician, “being economical with the truth.” I am also always intrigued as to why we allow those who have lied to us once back into a position of trust.

The simple fact is that lying is big business and the gain for the liar can be great, even after they are caught. Hence, the ability to detect and analyze deception is a hugely valuable skill set. Consider, for a moment, the following results of research conducted on lying:

*One in four Americans believes it is acceptable to lie to an insurer.
*One in five employees says they are aware of fraud in their workplace.
*Deception costs businesses $994,000,000,000 (nine hundred and ninety-four BILLION dollars) per year.
*A study of 2.6 million resumes by Avert found that 44% contained exaggerations or fabrications.

The statistics are both alarming and instructive: we need to be on our guard!

While some may maintain that “small lies” are not that harmful, and therefore we should not punish the wrongdoer, we should be careful how we define a small lie. For instance, is it a small lie for someone, who otherwise appears to be a talented business person, to say they have an MBA when in fact they only have an undergraduate degree? Surely they should be judged by their performance and the lie can be overlooked!

Perhaps not, Kenneth Lochnar, the CFO of Veritas Software told just such a lie. When his "resume padding" (it sounds so benign) was revealed and he resigned in 2002, Veritas stock lost nearly $1.14 billion and the news triggered an investigation that showed highly suspect accounting practices had been in place during his tenure, causing even greater harm. The “small lie” could have been found through screening and the bigger lies that were then perpetrated could have been avoided thereby protecting the savings of many.

People lie for a number of reasons, a few of these include: to obtain a reward: to gain an advantage; to influence others or win admiration, love and affection; to protect ourselves; to protect others; to avoid being punished; to avoid difficult situations or to maintain our privacy. The list goes on.

Some lies start out “small”, they are told merely so that the teller can get a foot in the door. However, they then snowball when the teller fails to correct the lie. This snowball could often have been prevented from even forming through simple, cheap, screening.

Remember the case of Marilee Jones, the Dean of Admissions at MIT?

Few in the academic realm have not heard of her. She was famous before her lies were revealed because she was the “go to guru” on admissions in American Higher Education. She had written books and provided wonderful advice to parents, students and institutions. But, what is she “famous” for now? Jones lied about degrees she did not have, including a doctorate that was credited to her, without correction, several times in 2007 (the year of her “Waterloo”).

Jones worked for 28 years at MIT before her deceit was discovered, MIT, to this day, has not released the name of the whistleblower, but it appears clear it was an individual who alerted them rather than a random audit of qualifications that employers should be conducting. This is not a glowing endorsement of screening of employees in the higher education sector. One phone call to her purported alma mater would have revealed the lie, just as it would for Lochnar at Veritas.

Surely, therefore, an institution or company that does not verify the claims of prospective employees must shoulder some of the blame for the resulting PR nightmare or stock crash.

What is galling is the fact that Ms. Jones has now, it is reported, hired someone to assist her in her “comeback” and in “reclaiming her name” (doubtless this time without the title). There were even reports of institutions calling her to offer jobs! What message does that send to students about to embark on their careers?

While it is galling, it is not surprising, society seems quick to forgive those caught in lies and allow them to rebuild their careers, just look at Jimmy Swaggart, Peter Popoff and a whole array of political “stars”.

Redemption for liars, I contend, is part of our problem. If redemption and forgiveness, by way of career opportunities and riches, for even the most appalling of lies is so easy to come by then what is the incentive not to lie?

When I see the readiness of people to allow liars back into positions of trust, I am reminded of Orwell’s “1984”, and the concept of “doublethink”. Many have developed the ability to hold two seemingly opposing ideas in our head at the same time and allow both to be valid. We know in our heart that politician X or preacher Y is a liar and yet, at the same time we place trust in them. Is this how far the rot has spread? We must resist this with every fiber of our being.

At the end of the day, society must begin not just to root out the deceivers and the confidence tricksters but go further and ostracize them and not allow comebacks to positions of trust. When we take this clear stand and make the incentive to tell the truth more appealing than the incentive for telling the lie, then we will begin to curtail this epidemic.

My message of consolation for Mr. Huhne's wife is that, as shocking as it may be, people, yes even politicians, lie. Be prepared and never again place a proven liar, not even a politician, on the pedestal of the honest!


  1. Very nicely written. It is astounding that some businesses don't realize how cheap it is to do a proper background. As for politicians, well....

  2. The incentive to tell the truth being more appealing than the incentive of telling the lie surely starts in infancy? No matter what you did wrong, if you told the truth you were more readily forgiven than if you lied. The lie was a greater fault than the deed. This principle is - or should be - valid throughout life.

  3. Is Chris Huhne the British John Edwards? Nicely written, Mr. Romary.

  4. Problem is everyone wants to be 1) helpful and 2) believe what they are told. An air of caution when engaging someone would be nice, but continuously on one's guard would be paranoia. You are correct though in stating that generally people are quick to forgive/forget, perhaps a culture of short-attention spans. I can't think of a tool that the general population would use/listen to/be trained in for what you have in mind.

  5. I think the writer is not talking about a tool, more about a mindset of not being so forgiving towards people in positions of trust who are dishonest. I also think it is a stretch to equate being on guard, having healthy scepticism with paranoia. Again, I took this piece to be talking about not just reposing trust in people for important matters rather than constantly being on the look out for lies from everyone 24/7. I may be wrong and will let the man speak for himself if he wants to.

  6. Great article and warning to business to be on guard. I read recently that the Ekman facial recognition system actually proved no better than a coin toss when used at airports. His books also have changed in tone since early 2000s when he readily admitted that his methods were just indicators, to now (after Lie to Me) when he miraculously puts greater stock in them. Bottom line: no substitute for background work and hard work to find the truth. Well written piece!

  7. Good piece. Agree business should be on guard as should we all (especially from politicians who will be lying their asses off over next year +)

  8. The ability to detect the lies of politicians will be a hugely valuable commodity in the next year and a half. The stakes are so high!

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