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When Can You Actually Trust a Liar?

We talked to psychologists and mental health professionals about the Michael Cohen question: When a known liar starts telling what sounds like the truth, can we believe him?

Yesterday, former Trump fixer Michael Cohen sat in front of a congressional panel to answer questions about the president’s conduct during his campaign. The drama! The grandstanding! This show had it all. But many Republicans who questioned Cohen fell back on a single, seemingly infallible fact: Michael Cohen is an admitted liar who made a living defending another known liar, so what’s keeping him from lying about everything else? How can we trust anything he says?

On the other hand, what did Cohen have to lose? He’s already going to jail. Any falsity he utters under oath is only going to hurt him more. So why shouldn’t we believe him? Especially when he’s pulling out such juicy receipts, like the check used to pay off Stormy Daniels to suppress her alleged affair with the president?

So the question comes down to this: How do you trust a liar? When can you trust a liar? We know from the classic fable The Boy Who Cried Wolf that these are tough questions to answer. So I reached out to several mental health professionals to see if they had any ideas.

To Thine Own Self Be True

Dr. Claudia Luiz, a psychoanalyst in New Jersey, says she’s no stranger to dealing with liars. “Psychoanalysts see people lying — to themselves, their spouses, friends and children — all the time!” she tells MEL. Luiz says it’s for this reason that analysts are specifically trained to use their own emotions “as instruments for assessment, diagnosis and cure.”

“We are trained to feel a lot of things that help us understand a person — anger, grief, defensiveness, fear,” she explains, adding that such empathy comes with a dose of subjectiveness. “So the art of assessing someone using your own emotions depends upon knowing which feelings are yours (like mistrust or suspicion), versus what is coming from someone else (lying, deluding themselves).”

Dr. Patrick Wanis puts it another way: “Ask yourself if you are choosing to believe or deny the liar purely for your own benefit?’”

In other words, in order to get to the bottom of someone’s lies, you should first try to identify your motivation in determining if someone is lying or not. If you’re suspicious of this person already, you’re probably going to assume they’re lying before they even begin to speak.

Why Are They Lying?

Ari Hoffman, a psychotherapist in Denver, says no two liars are the same. If you’re in a position of needing to know whether you can trust a known liar or not, he says to ask yourself why this person lies in the first place. “Is it because they have their own version of reality or specifically for their own gain?” he says.

First, the people who lie because they’ve created an alternate reality. “They want to see the world through the lens they’ve created,” Hoffman explains, “so this lying becomes almost more about creativity and an individual’s ideals than actually lying.”

Thus, he says, trying to understand why this “person feels so compelled to create a world different from the one they actually live in is very helpful in establishing what they will be more objectively honest about.”

In this case, to get to the truth, Hoffman advises you stick to reality. “Gauging this person’s capacity for more objective truth should be based on tangibles,” he says, offering the example: “Oh you won the lottery? I’d love to see the ticket.”

Then there are the people who lie to avoid trouble or for specific gain. Hoffman says the the key to knowing if this person is telling the truth is to ask yourself, and even the potential liar, what is the personal gain potential, or what trouble are they trying to avoid?

“If you are able to answer that question, you have a better chance of knowing how true is the information you are getting,” he says.

Finally, Hoffman concludes that fear is “an enormous motivator for both of these types of people. … Remember that, and while making wise choices about how much you trust them, stay empathic about their situation. Your empathy will increase your understanding, which will help you gauge their level of honesty.”

Is What They’re Saying Harmful to Themselves?

Wanis tells MEL that the “only way to ever know if you can trust the liar is to first know what kind of liar this person is.” That is, overall, make sure they’re not a pathological liar.

“Although there is no universally accepted definition of a pathological liar,” Wanis explains, “there is a difference between a pathological liar and what we might commonly refer to, out of exaggeration, as someone who lies all the time.”

What about someone like Cohen, who’s paid to lie? Wanis explains that most normal people lie out of self-interest. “If a liar is saying something that he claims to be the truth, and it would hurt him if it actually is the truth, then there’s a good chance it is true.”

On the other hand, a pathological liar will lie even when it’s harmful to themselves, Wanis says, and often will not have a clear motivation to lie in the first place.

Some Physical Cues to Look For

Dr. Matthew Kane, a former military-intelligence officer of the Canadian Armed Forces who wrote his doctoral thesis on emotional-deception detection, says there are a number of physical ticks that will give away a liar.

“No matter the reason that the person is telling a lie, there are ways to detect the lie,” he tells MEL. “This comes down to three main areas: nonverbal cues, verbal and para-verbal cues (or how we say our words), and what type of lie the person is talking about.” Kane says to consider why the liar is lying, who the liar is, and the context surrounding the lie when making a judgment call. He also adds a few behavioral tics “that may be present that indicate deception, no matter the type of deception”:

  • Pupil dilation
  • Adaptive gestures
  • Postural rigidity
  • Non-congruent gestures
  • Sadness and anger on the face
  • Talking time decrease
  • Increase in vocal tension
  • Increase in vocal pitch
  • Use of more sentences to explain something
  • Increased use of words associated with anger
  • Fewer words overall used

Just Trust Your Gut

Luiz adds that once you, the listener, have identified the emotions with which you’re entering the conversation, you will then begin to build a sort of “gut feeling,” from all the history, context and social cues surrounding the liar.

“Having and using this kind of emotional radar is actually quite common,” she tells MEL. “Mothers use it as a sixth sense with their children, and to some degree, we can all spot a liar, even when we are not fully sure we can trust our feelings and concerns.”

According to Luiz, learning how to listen to your gut feelings is called “symbolic communication,” or “how a person communicates — like the intensity of their eye contact, or the feelings in the room. Do they seem relaxed, genuine? And all the other non-verbal stuff.”

Wanis, however, adds that if the person you’re dealing with is a pathological liar, or believes their own lies, your gut won’t be much help. “Some liars have been doing it for so long and with so much practice that they can easily become delusional and actually believe their own lies,” he says. And much like pathological liars — who often suffer from a legitimate personality disorder — they won’t give off the particular physical cues that might tip off whether they’re lying or not.

Notably, there have been a few studies on the unconscious mind’s ability to detect lies. Some say our brain is a great lie detector, while others say we have no idea, and there were too many holes in the prior’s research. So much like anything attempting to capture the human unconscious, it’s proven to be a slippery subject.

And that’s why your gut feeling is just the starting point, Luiz concludes. “You can start with your gut, using your own emotions as an instrument to gauge, assess and guide you. But then, after you develop your hypothesis (like, ‘this person is lying’), you need this little thing called… evidence.”