Why we fall for lies, especially our own.
Reading time: 8 minutes 28 seconds
On May 27th, 2015, Forbes named Elizabeth Holmes as the youngest and wealthiest self-made female billionaire as they valued her company Theranos at nine billion dollars.
Wearing black turtlenecks inspired by Steve Jobs, Elizabeth waged war against the difficulties inherent in blood testing. Her start-up ‘Theranos’ found an incredible way to revolutionize the process of taking blood and make it possible to do them while only needing small amounts of blood. Elizabeth was changing the world.
Except she was not. Over the next few years, information came to light to suggest that she was defrauding investors. The claims she was making were not accurate. The tests weren’t as good as she made them out to be. Elizabeth lied about her invention and, in 2023, was sentenced to just over 11 years in prison.
There are plenty of examples of this:
Kenneth Lay, Bernie Madoff, Lance Armstrong, and Olivia Jade are all examples of public figures who were found to be lying to everyone.
In a world where so many people experience imposter syndrome and think of themselves as frauds who will be found out any day now, there are plenty of actual frauds who have conned millions of people. And to make matters worse, they don’t even struggle with imposter syndrome.
Believing what is said
In every case, we believed what the person said. They were able to persuade us that they were telling the truth until the evidence showed that they were not. In some cases, this had hugely negative consequences for millions of people.
We must get out of the habit of always believing what people say. We must learn to critically evaluate ideas so that we can avoid making mistakes that can cost us. That is evident.
But what isn’t so evident is that we must get out of the habit of always believing what we say to ourselves. This is also a big problem. Speaking is easy. Doing isn’t. Saying you will write a book is one thing. Writing a book is an entirely different proposition.
To make this shift:
- We must first understand why we believe people when they say something, and then explore why we believe ourselves when we make promises.
- Then, we will unpack strategies to help us become better at speaking truth to ourselves and watching what we (and others) both say and do.
The Truth Default Theory
Why do we believe other people? One of the main reasons is because of what is known as the ‘Truth Default’ theory by Timothy Levine.
Levine had participants listen to audio recordings of speakers who were telling the truth or lying. Participants were significantly more likely to believe the speaker was telling the truth than they were to say the speaker was lying.
We are prone to believe other people by default and only question this belief in the face of significant triggers that arouse suspicion and garner our skeptical mindset.
Why, though, does this effect occur? Well, there are two main elements at play:
1. Cognitive Ease
We believe people more quickly than we doubt them because it is easier to do so. It requires a lot more brain effort to assume someone is lying because then we have to figure out what the truth is. When we believe someone, that makes it easy for us to get on with the rest of our lives.
2. Social Trust
It is also critical in forming social trust. Since we evolved to have tribal relationships, we need to believe each other if we are to sufficiently support each other and maintain membership in the tribe. It’s good for us.
Indeed, if we didn’t have a default habit of assuming someone is telling the truth society would struggle to function. Trust is the bedrock of the system we have built. We need people to be honest and when they are not they must be held accountable.
The Dark Side of Believing People
There are problems that come along with this bias, however. Take social media, for instance. Here is an online world where we market to each other. We all present ourselves as being the very best version of ourselves while we are “living our best lives”.
Meanwhile, we know that we’re not…. But we see everyone else do so. As a result, we feel bad because we are not doing as well. It is emperors-new-clothes on crack. Everyone pretends they’re amazing and, as a result, we create a reality where we are always not enough because the game is to pretend and the only true thing we know is that we’re not who we should be. It’s a game and everyone is lying.
It’s not about reality but, to an extent, perception becomes reality. It’s not so much about the actions you are actually taking but what you say you are doing or going to do.
Stop Believing Yourself
So, how does this relate to believing yourself?
It is apparent that cognitive ease certainly plays a role in explaining why we believe ourselves. One of the mechanisms that we use to maintain this ease is what is known as confirmation bias. This means that we look for evidence that proves that we are correct and we dismiss evidence that contradicts us.
It’s not that we evaluate the evidence first and figure things out. It’s that we find the evidence that backs up what we are saying to ourselves.
When you say, I’m going to go to the gym today, your inner attorney claims that you will and when you don’t, they explain why there was no way that you could. Your excuses are framed as rationalization.
One of the things that is also important for us is consistency. We feel a need to be consistent with the kind of person that we say we are. When we aren’t we experience what is known as cognitive dissonance. We try to reduce that stress by either changing how we think or changing what we do. All too often, we change how we think and let ourselves off the hook as a result.
As a result of this, we stop trusting ourselves. This is hugely problematic. When you no longer trust yourself, it will be extremely difficult to transform any habit or achieve any goal. A big part of success is your ability to do what you say you will do when you say you will do it.
That’s ultimately how we trust others. If your friend promises you that they will be on time and they’re never on time, you stop believing them. If you tell yourself you’ll go to bed at 10 pm and you never do, you’ll stop believing yourself.
The Incentivization Issue
A big problem here is that what we say is over-indexed and what we do is under-indexed. This makes us less incentivized to take action.
Actually doing the thing is hard. It requires discipline, willpower, and grit. It means dealing with the messy forces of antagonism that will inevitably push back in the real world.
Whatever actions you take privately are only known to you but what you say on the world stage (or on X) is more likely to get you kudos.
For instance, if you donate money to a cause such as the victims of a devastating war, few people will know about that but if you say ‘I stand with them’ and you have their flag in your profile everyone will know that.
There are more rewards, at least socially, for telling the world outwardly what you think as opposed to actually doing something good.
The Power of Hyperbolic Discounting
Furthermore, there is also the phenomenon of hyperbolic discounting. This is our tendency to over-value what we get in the present and to under-value what we can get in the future. It’s why the cheesecake now is so much more enticing than the six-pack in six months.
Human beings do what they can for rewards. When the rewards are given for the positive social recognition and praise you get today for saying something, you don’t need to do it.
Don’t tell people your Goals
Finally, Peter M. Gollwitzer and his colleagues have found that the process of actually telling other people your goals can have a negative effect on your ability to achieve them.
The theory is that when we speak about the accomplishment, it can make us feel like we have already achieved it and so it reduces our level of motivation for it. That phenomenon is known as ‘social reality’.
How to Believe Yourself
How can you stop believing so much in what you hear and instead start listening to yourself and others when you are worth listening to?
1. Believe what a person does more than what they say.
Avoid assuming because someone said something that it will happen. Open your mind to the possibility, but learn from the person how consistently they follow through and do what they say they will do.
2. Always look for the signaling.
Every time someone speaks, they are doing so for multiple reasons. One of those reasons is to impact the way you think and feel. When you listen to someone through that lens and understand they are trying to influence you, you are less likely to assume everything they speak is true.
3. Whenever you say something to yourself, ask yourself how sure you are that it is correct.
It’s important to be able to challenge our thinking and not fall into the trap of believing whatever we are thinking. Evaluate your thoughts and ideas and rethink them when you need to do so.
4. Get into the habit of keeping your promises – to yourself.
While keeping your promises to others is critically important, keeping promises to yourself will transform your life. Make sure you only say that you are going to do something if you are 100% sure that you will do it. Commit to making it happen if you have promised to do so.
The old phrase ‘actions speak louder than words’ stands as true today as it ever has. It’s so important we start valuing the actions that we take and the impact those actions can have.
The world we live in is full of propaganda, marketing, and branding wars. So many people are telling you why they are right or the best or have the answers. Most of the time the ones that we can trust are those who are actually doing things that make an impact rather than telling everyone constantly that they are.
We are more likely to automatically believe others when they say something. This is because our brain finds it easier to do so and it helps us build trust with our social group. The problem with this is that, as a result, we form an inaccurate model of the world in our minds and make poor decisions as a result.
We also believe what we say to ourselves and then find ways to convince ourselves that we are correct. We over-value the immediate gratification that we get by saying we are going to do something, for instance. We then feel like we almost don’t need to do it afterward.
It’s so easy to think of con artists like Elizabeth Holmes and shake our heads. They misled so many people and destroyed so many lives. But are we destroying our own lives?
- Are we constantly listening to people we want to listen to because it makes us feel nice, even though we know deep down that their advice isn’t helpful?
- Are we constantly assuming that because someone said something, they will actually follow through?
- Are we constantly promising ourselves that we will do something and never get around to it?
If so, while we might not be stealing millions of dollars from shareholders, we may be stealing time and energy (and even money) from ourselves. It’s time to stop believing what people say and start believing what they do. (starting with ourselves)
Hope you enjoyed reading this. Feel free to share with anyone you know who would be interested.
P.S. My interview with ‘Jim Johnson on the Belief of a Leader’ is my latest Changing Minds podcast episode – you can watch and listen to it here.