How do you know when someone is telling you the truth? And if you do believe, how can you be sure it's not because you want it to be true?

Those two questions are top of mind in the journalism world this month, as Rolling Stone faces a lawsuit--likely the first of several--over its widely discredited and now retracted article recounting a brutal gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity. A thoughtful report by the Columbia School of Journalism dispelled the notion that this instance of shoddy journalism resulted from the compressed deadlines and reduced resources that have plagued publishing as a whole for the past several years. Instead, it came from something much simpler and very human: Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the article's author, and Rolling Stone editors suspended their normally good journalistic judgment out of a combination of sensitivity toward the young woman who described the assault and a because they wanted the story to be true.

These are people who are smart enough to know better. Erdely has written many stories that required top-notch reportorial skills, and Rolling Stone has deservedly won wide recognition and awards for its reporting on many important topics. If they could be taken in by lies, does that mean it could happen to anyone?

Yes, it can. I know, because it happened to me. Some years ago, I married a charming, handsome man and then discovered that everything he had told me about himself was a lie. He was an accomplished liar, but I was inclined to believe him because I very much wanted to: I was lonely and wanted someone to share my life with.

That marriage ended years ago and I'm happily remarried now. Since then, I've tried hard to learn to recognize the factors can make anyone--even a seasoned journalist--believe things that aren't true. Does that mean I'm now completely immune? No. I don't think anyone ever is. But we can all learn to be better at recognizing the thought processes that lead us to believe when we should be skeptical. (Here's more about how to spot a lie.)

If you're not sure whether to believe something you're being told, pause for a moment to ask yourself these questions:

1. Does what you're hearing confirm what you already believe?

This is such a common problem that psychologists have a term for it: confirmation bias. We live in a world that caters to our confirmation biases--if you're right-leaning, you're likely to watch and trust Fox News; if you're left-leaning, you may do the same with MSNBC. Because you're reading this website, my guess is you believe that starting a company is a worthy pursuit--if you thought life was better in a giant corporation you would probably read something else.

In Erdely's case, she already knew that rape is an ongoing problem at college campuses and that there were several well documented instances of rapes at UVA. She went looking for the perfect victim to tell that story and when she found one, her confirmation bias pushed her to trust that victim.

2. Do you have skin in the game?

If the truth--or falsehood--of a statement benefits you in some way, be especially careful, because your self-interest may cloud your judgment even if you don't want it to. That was likely part of what happened here. both Erdely and Rolling Stone's editors knew that they had a story that would resonate with many readers and it did. "A Rape on Campus" was viewed more than 2.7 million times--more than the magazine's celebrity interviews. No one involved wanted to give up on that compelling story, and who can blame them?

3. Do you think the speaker is telling the truth because he or she has no reason to lie?

You can get into terrible trouble ascribing rational self-interest to what someone is telling you. Just because someone has no reason to lie doesn't mean they won't, as I learned the hard way in my first marriage. People lie for all sorts of reasons that may or may not make sense, perhaps simply because lying has turned into a daily habit. Just because someone has no good reason to lie doesn't mean he or she is telling the truth.

4. Do you like the speaker?

I don't mean to suggest that just because someone is likable he or she is likely to be a liar. However, if we like someone, we usually want to go on liking that person, and want them to like us as well. It's a different form of having skin in the game.

The most accomplished liars have also learned how to be very likable. So liking someone is fine, but suspending your usual judgment or verification for someone you like can be a big mistake. Don't do it.

5. Does the speaker want to keep things secret?

One way to keep a lie from being found out is to limit how many people know about it. In this case, the woman who claimed to be gang-raped (understandably) did not want her name used, but she also refused to name the ringleader in the attack that she described. Wisely so: It was only when Erdely finally pressed the victim for details on his identity that she got her first inkling that she had been duped.

6. Is the information difficult to verify, or do you think the speaker will be unhappy if you do?

Most information can and should be verifiable. The fact that Erdely accepted the source's description of conversations with what she claimed were unsympathetic friends was one of the reporter's biggest mistakes. If she had insisted on speaking with these friends, she likely would have caught the discrepancies before the story was published. The reporter could have pushed harder on this point (Columbia did indeed interview the friends). What stopped her was her fear that the young woman in the story would withdraw her cooperation if she was ever pushed too hard. She let that fear dictate her actions and lived to very much regret it

Always verify whatever you can. An honest person won't mind if you do.

7. Does your gut tell you to beware?

Take the time to tune into your own intuition when you badly want to believe what you're being told. (Here are some tips on strengthening your intuition.) What does your gut--by which I literally mean your belly region--tell you about this speaker? Should you trust him or her, or not? It's far from an infallible test, but when real information is hard to come by, it just might keep you out of trouble.

Published on: Apr 10, 2015
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