What does Lance Armstrong reveal about the psychology of deception?
Dr Raj Persaud and Professor Adrian Furnham
Psychologists familiar with the Machiavellian (or manipulative) Personality Type may not be that surprised. Machiavellianism, or manipulativeness, crucially explains effectiveness in evading capture for extended periods. It’s this element to Armstrong’s story which echoes that of Jimmy Savile’s.
Machiavellianism is measured by personality tests and so called ‘High Machs’ – those who score high on machiavellianism – are strategic long-term planners. Lance Armstrong has become famous for his apparently altruistic work with cancer charities – this echoes Jimmy Savile’s extensive similar charitable pursuits.
Is it possible that in both cases benevolent involvement was part of a machiavellian tactic to evade detection?
Such altruism distracts those who would otherwise be suspicious and investigate. It deflects questions over character, and also inhibits investigators because an implication is; you’ll impede these valuable good works, by attacking someone responsible for helping others. Questions will be asked about your motivation in trying to pull down a basically decent person. How, also, to raise the alarm when battling against general good-will to the culprit?
Niccolò Machiavelli – after whom the personality type is now named – in his famous advice to anyone who sought power, did not actually advocate lying as a guiding principle. He merely assumed it was necessary in an imperfect world – this pragmatism underlies the core character of the machiavellian. The 16th century founder of political science was eerily prophetic of Armstrong, Savile and modern times. Machiavelli emphasized maintaining a public appearance of virtue, while behind the front, practicing whatever it took to achieve one’s ends.
Manipulation tactics are divided by psychologists into two main types – ‘soft’ – ingratiation and reasoning, or – ‘hard’ – such as direct assertiveness. Hard tactics are where the user forces their will on another person, leading to perceptions such as ‘‘pushy’’. ‘Soft’ strategy is designed to convince it is in your interest to do the machiavellian’s bidding.
For example, the ‘High Mach’ will deploy ingratiation, compliments, favours and humour to create friendships. These ‘friends’ are actually being set up for later exploitation. Blindsided by camaraderie, they won’t even see the exploitation, believing instead they are doing a friend a favour.
‘High Machs’ intuitively grasp one of the keys to trust is mood, so they influence emotional atmosphere.
Feelings dramatically sway judgements of whether you’re being lied to or not, and this partly explains why most are so poor at spotting deceit. The way mood interferes with deceit detection also explains the paradox that we’re often worse at spotting lies in those closest to us. Most day to day credibility decisions are in fact emotional. For example, deciding whether or not to believe a lover, friend, relative or colleague are judgements full of poignancy.
Psychologists Joseph Forgas and Rebekah East from the University of New South Wales, Sydney, recently illustrated this vital principle in a study entitled ‘On being happy and gullible: Mood effects on skepticism and the detection of deception’.
After inducing positive or negative moods using ﬁlms, participants in the study, published in the ‘Journal of Experimental Social Psychology’, viewed deceptive or truthful interviews with those denying committing a theft. Being in a negative frame increased scepticism, and improved accuracy in detecting deception, while cheerful judges were more trusting and gullible.
One theory as to why being sad makes you better at spotting liars, while happiness lures you into gullibility, is that the whole evolutionary purpose of gloom, as wired into our brains, is signalling a problematic situation. Such predicaments require attention to detail, or vigilance, as a survival mechanism through history. On the other hand happiness signals a benign non-threatening scenario, and therefore inhibits vigilance. Sad people pay more attention to detail in conversation compared to the happy, and this means they are better able to spot small inconsistencies revealing deception in the manipulative.
This, along with many other tactics, explains how the manipulative get away with evading detection for so long, but what happens when they are before the TV cameras, and no one is any longer in a good mood? As, for example, with Lance Armstrong now on Oprah?
Leanne ten Brinke and Stephen Porter from the University of British Columbia recently conducted the most comprehensive study to date of extremely high-stakes, real-life deception. Televised footage of 78 individuals from all over the world emotionally pleading to the public for the return of a missing relative was meticulously studied frame-by-frame (30 frames/s for a total of 74,731 frames). About half of the pleaders eventually were convicted of killing the missing person.
For example, the authors point out Michael White of Canada, convinced even his victim’s mother, by tearfully pleading for the return of his pregnant wife, yet he’d brutally murdered her only days before.
The authors of the study, published in the journal ‘Law and Human Behaviour’ found besides subtle differences in body language, such as facial expression and blink rate, deceptive pleaders used more tentative words than the genuinely distressed.
For example, the authors quote Pam Poirier desperately pleading for her daughter’s return: “. . . Katie please call us and tell us you’re okay. Whoever took our Katie, please tell her we miss her, we love her, and we want her to come home . . .”.
In contrast to this definiteness, deceptive murderers used more tentative words, possibly to unconsciously distance themselves from the transgression. For example, the authors quote wife killer Michael White: “If whoever has her, or if she’s out there and you see me, and you see this, just stay there, we’ll find you. We will, I’ll find you.” White tells his (murdered) wife that if she gets this message (which he knows she won’t), she should stay and he’ll find her.
The study entitled ‘Cry Me a River: Identifying the Behavioral Consequences of Extremely High-Stakes Interpersonal Deception’, reports that White indeed led police to his wife’s body several days later.
It would appear that to better spot the machiavellian we may have to use psychological techniques which get behind the conscious front, and access the unconscious.
But not just in them, in ourselves as well.