Trusting Can Be Dangerous

December 8, 2015

I have spent a lot of time in the last thirty years advising police, both regional and national, on how to evaluate truthfulness. You can see some of the training tools we used here. Police make mistakes, not just with Black people, although implicit or explicit racism causes a higher rate of mistaken judgments with people of color. The Innocence Project through DNA evidence has freed more than one hundred people from wrongful convictions. My job is to try to help the police make more accurate judgments. Most importantly, not to mistakenly judge innocent people as guilty of a crime.

Most police or LEO’s (Law Enforcement Officers as they like to be called) are suspicious, not trusting. This is a natural consequence of having the job of finding out who committed a crime. Distrust also is a product of the fact that some people in our society deliberately assassinate LEO’s. Yet if the police are not to misjudge the innocent, their suspiciousness has to be held in check. If they are to be protectors not warriors suspiciousness will be a hazard.

This work with the LEO’s has not made me suspicious; I have remained a trusting person in my dealings with family, friends, colleagues, and the employees of my small company. That is a deliberate choice.

We all have to choose which risk we want to take: misjudging the truthful person as lying; or, misjudging the liar as truthful. You can’t avoid both errors. I strongly advise everyone (perhaps with the exception of LEO’s and spies) to avoid the tragedy of misjudging a truthful person. Take the risks associated with trusting; you will be happier, probably live longer and have closer relationships, yet you may sometimes be taken advantage of. That is the cost; not a terrible one.

One further suggestion: try not to put people in the position where they will be tempted to lie. Let me use an actual example from my own family life. When my daughter was an adolescent there was a midnight curfew she was asked to observe when she was out with friends or on a date. One night I heard her come in at 1:30 in the morning, tiptoeing down the stairs to her bedroom. The next morning I was tempted to say, “how was the party?”, to see if she would volunteer that she had broken the curfew, and provide a justification for doing so or lie to me.

Instead I said: “Heard you come in well past your curfew,” (removing the temptation to lie about it), “What happened that you couldn’t make it on time?” Knowing from my own research that kids most often lie to avoid punishment for a misdeed, I wanted her to know that I was expecting there was an acceptable reason for not following the curfew, rather than having punishment (grounding her?) in mind.

I have heard her friends say to her that it must be hard having a father who was an expert in detecting lies. She would reply that she never had to lie to me. Of course I also avoided asking her about activities I knew she knew I would not approve of. The ground rule was that I only had the right to know about anything that put her or her friends in danger.

Our models as parents should be teachers of our offspring not policeman catching them in an offense. That stance will win us the trust of those we live and work with. We should do so knowing that sometimes we may be misled, but we will be trusted.

You can learn more about how to best respond to emotions with Paul Ekman’s Applied Training. Click here.