The other possibility is that by trusting others, we sharpen our skills in reading people. Skeptics assume that most people are hiding or misrepresenting something. This makes them interpersonally risk-averse, whereas people who habitually trust others get to see a wider range of actions — from honesty to deception and generosity to selfishness. Over time, this creates more opportunities to learn about the signals that distinguish liars from truth tellers. It’s this latter explanation, that trust improves our lie detection skills, that I find more plausible. Children develop beliefs about the integrity and benevolence of others early in life, often years before they can master the art of spotting con artists.
So what signals do trusters use to spot lies? One of the study’s findings is that they pay more attention to vocal cues than skeptics do. This lines up beautifully with a breakthrough review led by the psychologist Alder Vrij. His team examined several decades of research and concluded that most of us rely heavily on nonverbal cues, such as nervousness or confidence, even though they can be misleading.
To effectively spot lies, Vrij and colleagues recommend renewed attention to verbal cues-inconsistencies in stories and incorrect responses to questions for which you already know the answer. These cues are most likely to emerge when the dialogue is mentally challenging (as lies are harder to remember than the truth) and when questions are unexpected (as candidates won’t have a scripted answer).
Because every conversation and candidate is different, the red flags that matter will ultimately vary in each interaction. This means that we need leaders who demonstrate skill in recognizing dishonesty. Instead of delegating these judgments to skeptics, it could be wiser to hand over the hiring interviews to those in your organization who tend to see the best in others. It’s the Samaritans who can smoke out the charlatans.
Of course, faith in others can go too far. It’s important to sprinkle a few ounces of skepticism into each pound of trust. Ultimately, while the best leaders don’t trust all of the people all of the time, the keenest judges of character may be the leaders who trust most of the people most of the time.
Adam Grant is a Wharton professor and the author of “Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success,” out April 9, 2013.
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