Tristian Dedinas

Deception is everywhere. Every day, you’re likely to be misled even if you don’t realize it. Whether it be from people, infographics, news headlines, or public media, it can be challenging to notice when you’re being manipulated. This is something you should stay alert for, but also something you can leverage. Contrary to common belief, not all deception is bad, and some can actually be beneficial to our lives. It exists in countless different forms, each happening for different reasons and carrying new methods of detection. If you can tell when this is happening, you can be more confident that the information you’re getting is true and learn when to be skeptical. 

Let’s dive into deliberate lies. Beth Birenbaum—a research psychologist— explains that in order for something to be classified as deception, it needs to be intentional. The most basic form of lying is relaying information that’s completely different from what actually happened. However, this is extremely easy to spot and can be swiftly pulled apart with little to no effort. Instead, people often twist or distort the truth, adding, shifting, or removing factors to create a somewhat believable storyline. A great example of this is half-truth. Half-truth occurs when somebody tells a factually accurate story, but omits additional details that would alter one’s perception. For instance, if someone says “No, I didn’t steal your password to watch movies this week,” that’s implying that they could have done it last week, or the week before. Another tactic is exaggeration. When we retell stories, we often unconsciously exaggerate parts of them to more effectively convey our emotions. Think back to the last time you mocked someone or repeated something they said. People often employ this tactic to avoid being blamed in the event that they do get questioned.

Deception can also be observed on a much larger scale. Events on the news, billboards on the highway, and advertisements on the internet often use clever tactics to draw your attention to the benefits and leave the controversy in the shadows. Headlines are bound to be misleading and spreading fake news is one of the worst offenses. Have you ever clicked on an article, only to find the content somewhat underwhelming? That’s no coincidence. Robert H. Shmerling, who researched the different headlines of medical developments, observed much of the faulty logic between an article’s headline and its content. Journalists are tasked with summarizing an article in just a few words to create a captivating title that draws in its readers. However, this can quickly fall out of hand when the title is used to make a piece sound interesting to the point where it anticipates an outcome that differs from the actual content. In this example, a new pacemaker was being tested that dissolves away in the body after use with a headline, “First-ever transient pacemaker harmlessly dissolves in body.” In actuality, this invention was only tested on rats and dogs. Had people known this beforehand, they would likely exhibit more skepticism and show less interest. But in the digital era, this would also result in a lower click-through rate. An increasing number of publishers are prioritizing catchy headlines with higher click-through rates to spice up mediocre content, which you need to keep an eye out for to ensure the reliability of your material. Focus is gradually shifting from who can create the best article, to who can create the best headline.

Whether you see a piece of “breaking news” on Facebook or hear an alarming event on television, try to avoid getting too worked up. It’s better to approach content with skepticism, and wait until after you’ve understood the material before drawing a conclusion. It’s also important to support content you find valuable. Paying for journalism allows authors to spend more time crafting high-quality content, and focus less on driving clicks and website traffic. Understanding how media publishers display their content is a great way to help separate fact from fiction, and will also decrease the chances of you spreading fake news to others or quickly re-tweeting something.

While deception is undoubtedly something to stay on high alert for, there are times where it can be beneficial to our lives and the lives of others. Almost every person in the world has lied about something, even if they didn’t realize it. We often do so unconsciously. If someone asks us how they look, we’re unlikely to criticize them, but rather simply say “You look great!” If you brought this to one’s attention, the first thing you’d probably hear is that they said it, “To be nice,” but there’s a lot going on behind the scenes between you and the other person that drives this type of response. First is the most obvious, saying the wrong thing or making the wrong move can abruptly alter one’s perception about you. More importantly, as described by Psychology Today, we do this to raise confidence or self-esteem. Complimenting someone else in this way can make them feel more confident about their appearance, act more naturally, and let go of stress. This same phenomenon is also the reason we indirectly lie to ourselves. If you feel very strong about an opinion, you can exhibit what’s called confirmation bias. According to Julia Simkus, we will gladly read any piece of information that coincides with our existing beliefs, but may not be as inclined to open information that doesn’t. Likewise, when reading about a topic that fulfills your beliefs it’s not uncommon to find yourself creating thought bubbles along the lines of, “See, I knew it! I told you this would happen.” Or, “That’s why you shouldn’t do that.” This type of self-reassurance strengthens our existing beliefs, but also makes it more difficult to explore new ones.

When you’re looking out for the right details, recognizing this behavior can strengthen confidence in relationships, and improve the accuracy of your research and beliefs. The next time you’re reading an article that checks all the boxes of your existing knowledge, try to open up and venture down different pathways. The more information you have, the more informed you’ll be about your topic and the reliability of your opinions and the information you spread will increase.

Deception takes on many different forms in our modern world. You can be manipulated by people trying to convince you of their story or change the way you think about something. You can be manipulated by news headlines, billboards, or internet content that’s designed to persuade you into accepting a specific viewpoint. You can also be manipulated by yourself, when your brain unconsciously makes decisions that slip by your thought process. Learning how and why you are affected by deception will increase your sense of trust and certainty when it comes to analyzing the world around you and the information you share with others.