Author explores classic drawbacks and how to successfully tell falsehoods in a dazzling new book

PSYCHOLOGY

THE TRUTH ABOUT LIES

by means of Come on, Raden (Atlantic £9.99, 320 pp)

“Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies,” Fleetwood Mac sang in 1987. And my, get people delivered. Donald Trump is said to have told 30,573 lies while in office while Boris Johnson, as we all know, can be frugal with the truth. I had a friend who serially lied to me for over 30 years about everything. He’s not my friend anymore.

But Aja Raden, an American writer, sees lies as a perfectly normal part of life, something to be understood rather than condemned.

She says that humans have evolved to tell lies, that our children will not operate in the real world until they have mastered the ability to tell untruths. There is no one who doesn’t lie every now and then.

American writer Aja Raden, tells the stories of several classic scammers in a new book about the value of lying in normal life (file image)

American writer Aja Raden, tells the stories of several classic scammers in a new book about the value of lying in normal life (file image)

Even George Washington, when he said, “I can’t tell a lie,” told an absolute whopper.

Her main point is that in order for someone to lie successfully, there has to be someone else who swallows that hook, line, and sinker. Think about the last piece of really juicy gossip you got to hear. You didn’t check whether it was true or not before you started spreading it yourself. Of course not! Me neither.

In nine hugely entertaining chapters, Raden tells the outrageous stories of several classic con men and illustrates the mechanisms by which they all work, using both contemporary and historical examples.

The key question, she says, is ‘Why do people believe what they believe?’

We blindly rely on certain facts: things we have learned, things we can observe or solve on our own. Once we “know” these things, we never question them again. That’s called an honesty bias.

“Without this tendency to trust, to assume, just to believe, every human being on Earth would be born from scratch, unable to benefit from the knowledge of the collective.”

But it is the “honesty bias” that allows us to be pelted by scammers, serially lying friends and unscrupulous US presidents. Our strength, as so often, is also our weakness.

She begins with what she calls the Big Lie, in which the untruth is so enormous that not believing it threatens our sense of collective reality.

So if someone says to you, “I own land on Mars and I sell timeshares,” you might believe that, because no one would say such a thing if it wasn’t true, right? (My brother believed it and bought me some land there for my birthday a few years ago.)

THE TRUTH ABOUT LIE by Aja Raden (Atlantic £9.99, 320 pp)

THE TRUTH ABOUT LIE by Aja Raden (Atlantic £9.99, 320 pp)

THE TRUTH ABOUT LIE by Aja Raden (Atlantic £9.99, 320 pp)

So she gives the example of Gregor MacGregor, a broken-hearted Scottish aristocrat of the early 1800s who joined the Royal Navy in search of fame and fortune.

He became a mercenary in Central America, where he claimed to have encountered the magical kingdom of Poyais, a land of abundance brimming with untapped natural resources.

Returning to London, he sold shares in Poyais to the great and good, and persuaded seven boatloads of men, women and children to move there to earn their fortune.

When they arrived, they found that Poyais did not exist, that there was only the Mosquito Coast of Central America, lacking untapped natural resources but well equipped with mosquitoes.

Most of them died, and when a few managed to return to tell their stories, MacGregor fled to Paris, where he recounted the same Big Lie—and sold more stock in something that didn’t exist.

Next up is the Shell Game, the hustle and bustle in the street where you have to guess which of the three shells on a table has a ball underneath.

The ball has since been removed with sleight of hand, so the answer is “none of them,” but by then you’ve already lost the five you put down on the one you thought it might be. Raden explains that we don’t ‘see’ everything we think we see, that our brains fill in the gaps.

This is how so much stage magic works, convincing you that you’re seeing what you haven’t seen, and that you haven’t seen what you may have seen but not digested.

In later chapters, she looks at the Guru Con, at the way Rasputin confused the House of Romanov in pre-revolutionary Russia, the pyramid schemes of Bernie Madoff and bitcoin; and the sale of snake oil as a patent medicine in the Wild West, which continued long after the supply of real snake oil ran out.

It’s all great fun.

I assume it’s true. But if she had made up some of it, I wouldn’t be surprised at all.

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