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The 3 Rules of Effective Lying

Updated on February 11, 2013
Ironically, the story of George Washington chopping down a cherry tree and then honestly confessing to his father is itself a lie.
Ironically, the story of George Washington chopping down a cherry tree and then honestly confessing to his father is itself a lie.

Obligatory Moral Preamble

Western society has for generations demonized the patterns of behavior characterized by lying, dishonesty, and deception. Because of this, various social structures tend to assume honesty is the quintessential method of communication.

If you think back on your education, you were probably taught many ways to effectively communicate the truth-- from doing simple exercises such as "show and tell" in pre-school, to writing heavily cited research papers in high school or college .

Admittedly, effective communication is predominantly built on the truth. But neither this nor society's apparent lack of interest in teaching the skills of deception have deterred most people from lying on a regular basis.

Ultimately, lying is merely a tool used towards a certain goal. Whether that goal is positive or negative in nature depends entirely on your character and sense of ethics. With that said, I present to you the 3 rules for lying effectively.

Some people have more obvious tells when they're lying than Pinocchio. Rule #1 let's you get around that.
Some people have more obvious tells when they're lying than Pinocchio. Rule #1 let's you get around that.

Rule #1

The first rule of lying is: tell the truth.

Huh? But that's the exact opposite of what I'm trying to do!

Not necessarily. The objective of telling a lie is to hide your true thoughts and feelings. To that end, the truth can often be used to misdirect someone's attention and avoid having to outright lie.

For example, say your grandmother bought you a sweater for Christmas. She calls you the week after and asks you how you like it, and your honest answer would be that you hate it. You find the colors hideous and the style matches nothing in your wardrobe, but your grandmother is the type of person that would be absolutely crushed to hear this answer. So, you instead tell her, "it's really warm, and it fits perfectly!"

Chances are she will be satisfied with that answer and not dig much further. It will help if you change the subject immediately afterwards to keep yourself from being pressed for more information.

But why avoid an outright lie if I'm just going to deceive her with the truth?

The answer to this is three fold:

First, lying creates situations where you have to remember what you said and then consistently say it. In this simple case, it seems the lie would have been easy enough to remember, but if your grandmother pressed you for more information your lying would have to escalate and might quickly become difficult to remember.

Second, it is easier for you to express genuine emotion when telling the truth. Conversely, if you say something which you know is an utter falsehood your cadence will often be exaggerated, your appearance will be more nervous, and your choice of wording will be more awkward, all of which makes your lying easier to spot and therefore less effective.

Third, if you are lying in a situation involving verifiable information, it is often possible that your statements will be checked for their veracity. Furthermore, as information is all around us, all it takes is one random act of chance for someone to stumble upon evidence that you have been lying.

As it is undeniable that being caught or suspected of lying will damage your reputation (perhaps irreversibly), under no circumstances can the practice of lying be done carelessly. Paradoxically, because telling the truth consistently, with genuine emotion, and with evidence to support you increases your reputation, you should actively seek to tell the truth as often as possible if you want to deceive others more effectively.

In short, rely on the truth, and lie only when necessary.

Rule #2

The second rule of lying is: when you cannot use a deceptive truth, tell a lie that is as close to a deceptive truth as possible.

That sounds a lot like rule #1!

Indeed, all the rationale in rule #1 applies to rule #2. Therefore, the ideal lie deviates as little as possible from a deceptive truth.

Let us go back to our hypothetical sweater example. Say your grandmother asks a more specific follow up question, "were the colors nice?" At this point, if you answer a different question or continue to change the subject it will be obvious that you are avoiding something. Furthermore, if you bluntly say, "I thought the colors were ugly," it will have an even greater negative impact as your grandmother was starting to believe you liked the gift.

If you opt to outright lie (oh, I absolutely loved the colors!) you will be facing the obstacles outlined in rule #1.

The remaining option, to tell a lie that resembles the truth could go something like this, "I really liked the red in the sweater. You know red is my favorite color after all." In actuality, you may find the particular hue of red in the sweater unappealing, but if you like the color red the statement is close enough to the truth to not stand out.

The essence of rule #2 is the opposite of the saying, "go big or go home." Just because you have to lie does not mean you should be telling the boldest lie imaginable. While there might be some exhilaration associated with getting away with a daring lie, it is an unreliable means of deception and should be avoided in most cases.

Rule #3

Rule #3 is: keep your lies simple and efficient.

When you find yourself unable to carry on a deception using truths and half truths, it may finally come time to tell an outright lie. Should this occur it is imperative that your lie adheres to the virtues of simplicity and efficiency.

For some reason, many people have a tendency to wax on about a story that never happened. Perhaps they feel that more details equates to more believability, but in reality more details means more chances to get caught, more lies to remember, and more time for people to notice your awkward behavior.

In the previous example, when asked if you liked the sweater colors, a convoluted and overly complex lie could have been, "you know, the first thing I did when I got the sweater was put it on. It was so comfy I just started walking around the house with it on and I didn't even look at the colors that much it was so comfortable!" This story will surely be difficult to say smoothly as well as remember, which is why it is necessary to keep the lie simple.

Another common tendency is for people to use vague statements in the hopes that avoiding a specific lie will reduce the risk of being refuted by evidence. It is also easier to come up with a vague lie on the spot than a specific one.

But a vague lie fails to meet the criteria of efficiency. By being vague, you will frequently be pressed for more specifics which means more lying which could have been avoided. In our hypothetical, if you vaguely answer the question about the color of the sweater by saying, "the colors had a certain charm to them," you will likely be punished for your mysterious answer by further questioning, "oh? what kind of charm is that?" And now you must scramble to think of what you meant by charm.

A lie should be thought of as a bridge between truths. The heavier and bulkier the bridge, the more work it will take to construct and the more likely it is to collapse on itself. The more bridges you build, the harder it will be to maintain all of them. Thus, we build bridges only when we have to and do so with the least extravagance possible.

Build your bridges wisely lest you find yourself swimming with the fishes.
Build your bridges wisely lest you find yourself swimming with the fishes.


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