Lie Detectors?

Do poachers make the best game wardens?

An old saw states that if you want to protect against break-ins, get advice from a burglar. If you want to improve cyber-security, hire a hacker. But is this always a good idea? Do the skills that make for a good criminal make for a good cop? At least one study has shown that deception follows this model. People who lie, and perhaps lie easily, are also more readily able to detect deception in others. The ability to lie seems to be linked to the ability to detect lies in others.

A small study in England monitored some adults as they played a game in a study lab. The participants rated by the others as most credible or most accurate each got a prize, even though they were instructed to lie to the others half the time. It was sort of a group-rating system for truth-telling. The folks who were most convincing when they lied tended to be the most perceptive of others’ lies.

One issue with the study is that because all the participants knew that they had been instructed to lie, they also knew that they were being lied to much of the time. That’s not always the case in real life—when someone is lying, you don’t know if they are and your lie-detector apparatus may not be engaged. But life is full of deception. People who can figure out when and where they are being deceived have significant advantages in business, politics, academics, medicine, or just about anywhere that people interact.

Character is destiny, though. Working with a skilled deceiver is a dangerous game—they need to be hedged about with all sorts of safeguards everyone’s protection. Deception may be useful in the short-run, but reputation is essential in the long-run. And a good name, once lost, is almost impossible to retrieve.

Douglas R. Tengdin, CFA
Chief Investment Officer
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