How People Fool Us into Believing Them

How People Fool Us into Believing Them

How People Fool Us into Believing Them

I can tell if you are conning me – some of the time.

During my years as a therapist, it became second nature to notice the body language of my clients. During our conversations, I would sit across from people and try to infer from their nonverbal signals how they really felt about an issue.

When clients were authentic, their expressions, gestures, and expressions were aligned with their verbal messages. But when they were unconvinced or trying to “fake it,” their body language and spoken language were out of sync.

Soon it became second nature to look for nonverbal cues and to use what I learned to help people to recognize internal resistance or to surface genuine feelings in order to make positive changes in their lives. Now I speak on the impact of body language on leadership effectiveness to audiences around the world. I also show leaders how to read the body language of their audiences.

But I can be fooled. So can you.

Whenever we meet new people, our brains automatically and immediately begin to categorize them in some way – male or female, same or different, friend or foe, etc. – in order to predict what is likely to happen next.

Because none of us have the mental agility to consciously perceive and process all the factors needed to make these calculations, we rely on mental shortcuts that leave us vulnerable to a variety of judgment traps.

Because we are programmed to evaluate others in predictable ways, people improve their chances of fooling us when . . .

1. They Find Things We Have in Common

People define themselves in terms of social groupings: Any group that you feel part of is an “in-group” and any group that excludes you is an “out-group.” While out-group differences make us a little wary, in-group similarities make us feel comfortable.

The extent to which we feel someone is similar to us, even on a superficial physical level, has a huge impact on our attitude toward that person. Which is why mirroring – someone assuming the same postures, gestures and facial expressions as you – makes you perceive him or her as significantly more persuasive and honest.

2. They Act “Appropriately”

We all have a tendency to make judgments about another person’s true emotions based on our ideas of appropriate behavior. This shows up in lie detection, for example, when you believe that you know how you’d act if you were telling the truth – and that other truthful people would/should behave the same way.

3. They Are Attractive

 Unfair though it may be, and even if we proclaim otherwise, we judge people by their appearance. Because of this unconscious bias, we automatically assign favorable traits to good-looking people, judging them to be more likeable, competent, and honest than unattractive people.

4. They Flatter Us

Our susceptibility to flattery stems from a simple desire to feel good about ourselves. Whether you realize it or not, we can be unduly influenced by people who first butter us up with compliments about our intellect, style, or personal charm.  

5. They Maintain Good Eye Contact

Eye contact bears no relationship to honesty – but the most commonly believed myth about deception is that liars can't look you in the eyes. When someone looks at us when speaking, we tend to believe them.

6. They Dress the Part

Appearance plays a huge role in creating an impression of credibility. It has been proven that people are more likely to give money (in the form of charitable donations, tips, investments) or information to someone if that person is well dressed. The better dressed someone is, the more apt you are to believe them and follow their suggestions.

7. They Tell Us What We Want To Hear

“If you serve on this committee you’ll hobnob with the company’s top executives.” “This project will give you the experience and exposure you need for that next promotion.” “You’ll only have to work overtime on rare occasions.”

Maybe. Or maybe it’s just a less-than-truthful come-on from someone who understands that by saying exactly what you hoped to hear, you are more likely to be convinced.

8. They Charm Us

The term “halo effect,” coined by psychologist E. L. Thorndike, describes how our perception of one desirable trait in a person can cause us to judge that person more positively overall. For example: When a con artist is charming (and most of them are), we tend to automatically believe that he/she is also perceptive, candid, and on our side.

9. They Do Favors For Us

It doesn’t take an unethical favor or expensive bribe to make us feel indebted to someone - and the payback doesn’t have to be stated in an obvious manner. A close look at the psychology of relationships reveals that most individuals automatically attempt to keep a mental balance between what they contribute to a relationship and what they get back from it. When someone does us even a small favor, we feel obligated to reciprocate in some way.

10. They Touch Us

The expression "That person is an easy touch" refers to the persuasive power of touch because even casual and brief touches (on the shoulder, arm, or hand) have a much bigger impact than you might guess. In what has been labeled the “compliance effect,” research has found that touch increases the likelihood that people will do what you request. It’s also been shown that a subject being touched feels increased trust in and connection with the person who initiates the touch.

Many of these ten behaviors are also techniques of persuasion that can be used for benign – or even positive influence. But in the hands of manipulators or deceivers, they become sneaky ways to raise their credibility and lower your guard.

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Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D.

Leadership Expert

Carol is an international keynote speaker at conferences, business organizations, government agencies, and universities. She addresses a variety of leadership issues, but specializes in helping leaders build their impact and influence skills for fostering collaboration, building trust, and projecting that illusive quality called "leadership presence." She is the author of "STAND OUT: How to Build Your Leadership Presence." and the creator of LinkedIn Learning's video course, "Body Language for Leaders." Carol completed her doctorate in the United States. She can be reached at


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