Why You Can’t Spy a Lie and What to Do About It

Why You Can’t Spy a Lie and What to Do About It

Many years ago, my husband and I bought a single-engine Piper 180 airplane. He’d go out to the small airport 30 minutes from our house, expand his piloting skills and get a break from his high-pressure job as an intelligence officer.

Yes, it’s fairly expensive to own a small aircraft. Av-gas, maintenance, rental spot at the airport, etc. We decided to sell a half share in the plane to a friend who was also a private pilot. His check cleared and everybody was happy.

When work took us overseas, our friend bought our share of the plane, making him the sole owner.

About a year later, we were saddened to find out that the friend had crash-landed the plane. He was fine but the plane was a goner.

Fast forward 20 years

Now retired, my husband decided to buy another airplane and started looking at aviation websites.

He discovered a site where he could plug in the FAA tail number of an aircraft and see its history. On a whim he plugged in the Piper’s tail number.

Lo and behold, our sweet Piper 180 was alive and well, still wearing the same lovely coat of green and white paint. It had passed through several owners since our friend sold it and currently resides in the Midwest.

It never crashed. Our friend lied.

We’ll probably never know why.

Why can’t we spy a lie?

One of the reasons our friend got away with lying about the Piper was, in addition to being so far from the location of the alledged crash, we had no reason to suspect him of deceit.

All our previous interactions had been honest. We didn’t investigate any further.

But what if there had been a clue? Even a germ of suspicion?

Here are a few reasons why it’s so hard to answer those questions.

We don’t want to know

People do not believe lies because they have to, but because they want to. – Malcolm Muggeridge

Often, we don’t recognize a lie because it’s what we already want to be true. Deciding that the information is a lie means shedding existing beliefs, desires, bias or aspiration.

And nothing is harder than letting go of what you want to be true, especially if it aligns with a personal identity.

Basically, you can be swayed by what you want to believe rather than by objective assessment.

Nobody wants to believe as spouse is cheating, so the hotel receipt in the jacket pocket is rationalized as a business expense.

Nobody wants to believe their teen is running with a bad crowd, so the kid’s erratic and anti-social behavior is ignored.

Nobody wants to believe that a favorite politician is involved in scandal so the messenger is blamed.

In The Way of Integrity, Martha Beck writes “If we’re committed to integrity, we have to act like detectives on a case, testing every bit of evidence, seeing if it makes sense . . . In other words, we have to deliberately search for reasons that whatever we believe might not be accurate.”


Can you spy a lie even when it reinforces your own beliefs?

Yes, especially if there is a whiff of doubt. Find other sources of information on the same topic, examine the full story, and keep an open mind.


The niceness factor

Most of us are nice people who think other people are nice, too. You might think it’s paranoid to suspect someone of behaving deceitfully. You don’t want to be accused of being a conspiracy theorist or wind up in an argument.

So you ignore the deceit, effectively swallowing the lie.

That’s how liars exploit our tendency to be nice.

According to a 2021 university study in Sweden, nice people “risk being exploited in social situations,” because they can be perceived as “the proverbial doormat rather than as someone you’d be afraid to offend.”

A determined liar will exploit your instinct to be accommodating or avoid conflict. Liars may exploit our natural inclination to trust others, especially given how essential and universal trust is to healthy relationships.

They may use your reluctance to question or challenge their statements, knowing that you’d rather maintain peace and avoid hurt feelings—yours or theirs.


Can you spy a lie and still be nice?

Be pleasant but with a healthy dose of suspicion. Start from the premise that you don’t want to be taken advantage of. Trust, but verify, as they say in intelligence circles.


The repetition factor

The more you hear something, the more apt you are to believe it.

“Repetition is the mother of belief. What we repeat to ourselves, and what we hear repeated, sinks into our minds and becomes our reality.” – Tony Robbins

In Spy the Lie, a fascinating study by 3 former CIA officers, the authors use the term “referral statements” to define the repetition of  a claim someone is making. “Each subsequent time the claim is made, it diminishes our resistance or disbelief, to the point where the door is opened to the possibility that the claim actually has credibility.”

Basically, the more something is repeated, the more believable it becomes.

Think of the barrage of political ads before an election, harping on negative traits of candidates. Many outlandish ads are repeated over and over, hoping that sheer repetition will convince us that each candidate is a combination of Atilla the Hun and Ivan the Terrible.

If those ads didn’t work, they wouldn’t be so prevalent.


Can you spy a lie when you hear it again and again touted as truth?

Yes, because you should recognize repetition as a pattern with an agenda. Ask yourself why this is being repeated over and over. Go beyond the obvious reasons. Maybe they are correct, but maybe not.

If nothing else, repetition is a cue to investigate.


Final thoughts

Liars can exploit our reluctance to accept something that calls our own beliefs into question, a natural inclination to be nice, and a natural tendency to believe what we hear over and over.

But knowing all this gives you a clear advantage over the liar—if you choose to act on it.

If there’s any doubt, dig for more information, balance niceness with healthy suspicion, and recognize repetition as a pattern that may be pushing a deceptive agenda.

Let’s not crash any more Pipers.

The 3 Golden Rules of Lying and Deception

The 3 Golden Rules of Lying and Deception

You’ve been granted a tour of the original Central Intelligence Agency headquarters building outside Washington, DC.

Pass the statue of Nathan Hale as you walk through the big glass doors of the front entrance. Try not to gawk.

Once inside, the Great Seal stretches across the floor in varied shades of gray granite. A quote from the Bible is chiseled on the wall to your left. To the right, you see the Wall of Honor. Each star on the wall represents an Agency officer who died in the line of duty.

Carmen Amato at Wall of Honor CIA HQ

At CIA Headquarters, Nov 2016, the same day I was awarded the Career Intelligence Medal.

Walk straight ahead to the bronze bust of William Donovan, head of the Office of Strategic Services during World War II, the forerunner of the CIA. Proceed past walls lined with portraits of US presidents and former Directors of National Intelligence. Pause by Leon Panetta’s portrait. His dog Bravo, who often came to the office, is in the picture with him.

Through a bank of tall windows, you’ll glimpse a big courtyard. Keep going.

You’re almost at the most highly anticipated stop on your tour.

The store

Imagine the Disney Store if it was full of items bearing the CIA seal. Everything from cuff links to glassware, cigarette lighters to tee shirts. Even a cookbook written by intelligence officers called Spies, Black Ties and Mango Pies. Hidden in the back are necessary items for busy office workers: aspirin, mouthwash, extra ties and pantyhose.

Wade into the clothing section. Ignore the ubiquitous hoodies and polos. You’re looking for treasure.

There it is.

One tee to rule them all

The tee shirt bears 3 simple sentences, the unofficial ethos of those engaged in clandestine activities. These 3 simple sentences are key to understanding how lying and deception gain traction.

  • Admit nothing.
  • Deny everything.
  • Make counter accusations.

Whether bold-faced lies or subtle marketing falsehoods, successful lies are grounded in at least one of these concepts.

Admit Nothing

The easiest thing to do when confronted by a lie is to not admit it. Politicians and their spokespeople do it all the time. “No comment.”

A lie of omission is when you admit nothing AND create a believably false narrative. For example, by not reporting a hot news item that might damage a political or economic ally, a media outlet implies that the story is just not that important. Not worth wasting time on it.

The best thing about lies of omission is that they’re just so durn hard to prove.

Deny Everything

Denial is most effective with creative, slippery and/or vague language. “There’s no there, there.”


Do you recall President Bill Clinton’s 1998 denial in regard to his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky? “I did not have sex with that woman.”

Given the accusations, the word “sex” became a distracting sideshow. What does the word REALLY mean? And can we talk about it out loud?

Result? Denial AND a shiny object for detractors to chase.

Make Counter Accusations

Send the blame elsewhere. So-and-so did it, not me.

Go a step further and accuse So-and-so of having a nefarious reason for doing the bad thing. Claim to know their innermost thoughts.

Bonus points 1: make the counter accusation before the original accusation gets out there. Get ahead of the problem.

Bonus points 2: make the counter accusation into a shiny object for the audience to chase. Look! It’s Elvis!

Pushback? Repeats steps 1 and 2, above.

How I know this stuff

I spent 30 years with the CIA as an intelligence officer. Including a stint studying China’s media practices, the job gave me a world-class education in the mechanics of deception.

Now as a mystery and thriller author, that education helps me create crime fiction loaded with danger and deception.

Related: The Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series

As the Information Age picks up speed, we encounter more and more instances of creative falsehoods and hidden information.

We are fooled by clever lies of omission, slippery denials, and fingers that point in the wrong direction. And then there’s marketing . . . Basically we are living in a stew of deception.

In short, I find the mechanics of lying and deception quite fascinating and will be discussing it in the months ahead.


Tour over. Grab your tee shirt and that engraved CIA beer stein. We’ve got work to do.

Author Carmen Amato

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