Will the Truth Really "Out?"

As children, my cousin and I told other kids we were twins. When we confessed the truth, they wouldn't believe us. As lies go, this one was relatively benign. Colorado c. 1980.

As children, my cousin and I told other kids we were twins. When we confessed the truth, they wouldn't believe us. As lies go, this one was relatively benign. Colorado c. 1980.

Turn the other cheek. Let people say what they like and don’t protest or counter, or you sink to their level and add fuel to their fire.

Eventually, the smoke will clear and people will see through to the truth.

Wrong. So wrong.

Say something loudly enough and forcefully enough, and people will believe you. Say something with enough confidence and charisma, and people will believe you.

The truth won’t out.

What feels consolatory when preparing for a speech or a presentation doesn’t comfort much when we contemplate how to determine the truth in a given situation. When we wonder who to trust.

Public figures and people in authoritative and leadership roles lie loudly and even get caught in their lies, yet their bluster saves them from downfall. Politicians have this down pat, as we’ve all seen to our collective dismay (no matter on what side of the fence you reside).

Studies bear out these impressions—studies that you won’t feel particularly heartened to hear summarized. (At least, I didn’t.) How do liars get away with it? Let us count the ways:

  • Rejecting information takes more brainpower than accepting it as true, found a 2012 study from psychologists at The University of Western Australia. The same study found that misinformation sticks more firmly when it conforms to previously held beliefs. Further, the study found that efforts to retract false information—to show lies as lies—reinforces mistaken beliefs through repeating fake facts.

  • Even with the energy to critically assess the truth or falsity of statements, a lot of people don’t have the capacity or foundation to do so. They don’t have the math skills to test the numbers. They don’t have the life experience to know better. They don’t have the critical thinking skills with which to approach information.

  • People search for evidence that—even when false—supports their beliefs, according to a paper published in the September 2009 issue of Sociological Inquiry. When facts challenge beliefs, people tend to ignore or discredit them.

  • Often, liars butter people with flattery. When you like someone, when you feel he “gets” you, when you feel he shares something with you or confides in you—especially when he comes with flash and status—you want to believe him. Further, social proof helps: A lot of other people believe him. Why should you disagree?

How do the experts recommend we address blustery liars bolstered by charisma? The psychologists from The University of Western Australia who published the study cited above suggest providing an alternative account to fill the void, focusing on the facts rather than the myths, keeping your message simple and brief, taking into account your audience’s core beliefs, and repeating your message to drill it home.

Although this method sounds simple, I can’t say I’ve seen it in action and effective in real life.

The way I see it, we have three options:

  1. We continue to keep silent. We maintain hope that time and distance will prove our points.

  2. We counter lies with facts. Yet how can we cut through the noise of the liars? Their attention-attracting antics? Many people who have exposed lies, no matter how bald and clear their supporting evidence, haven’t had much effect.

  3. We shout more loudly than the liars. Sure, we include the facts, but we fight fire with fire. We scream, yell, even slander. Even if we choose to counter only with facts, we state these truths with even more bombast than the liars do their falsehoods.

What have I missed? Could another path lie hidden somewhere in the weeds?

I’ve begun to believe that you must lend your voice, speak truth to power, and not simply assume that smart people will see it on their own.

And I’ve begun to believe that sometimes you must do more than speak up—you must shout. Loudly.

I don’t shout much. Shouting feels against my grain. Yet I figure the time has come to try. To learn.

How have you dealt with lies and mistruths in the past? How did it play out? Would you handle these situations in the same way in the future or would you take a different tack?

What solution would you recommend?