We all lie – to avoid conflict, to move through the world a little easier, to stay in our jobs, to please others or simply to be liked. Every day I lie to my cats that I’ll only be gone for five minutes whenever I leave the house. Children learn to lie around the age of four, delighting in the new knowledge they can pull one over on their parents. It’s considered a stage of development. Some experts posit that children who do not get their needs met learn to keep lying as a way to get the attention, love and care denied to them. Sometimes they don’t stop and eventually lead lives of deception – anything that gives them attention or support.
In recent years, popular culture has become rife with tales of pathological liars. I’m one of those people who reads and watches everything about scammers. My fascination even led me to write my latest novel, The Fake, about two strangers who get taken in by a woman who lies about having cancer. The book is about the bystanders, and not the liar, because in most ways con artists are unknowable.
So why do we get taken in by the hustler narrative? Here are my best guesses.
The idea of taking shortcuts through life is alluring
Our cultural obsession with liars has to be in part about their ability to coast through life unconcerned by their lack of interiority, focused only on the present and what they can take from you. It’s hard for anyone to face the truth about themselves. So when you meet someone who refuses to know themselves and just makes it all up, it’s intriguing. If they weren’t so cruel and ruthless, manipulating the feelings of others, it would almost be admirable. Imagine the freedom in not caring!
There is just something captivating about extreme personalities and those who break social codes. We love to watch movies and read about people who do things we would never do. There are some people I put into the category of otherworldly, brave and capable in ways most of us could never be. This is why I avert my eyes when I see airline pilots walking through the airport: I don’t want to know they’re human beings with flaws, I just want them to hurtle me impossibly but safely through space in a tin tube. Liars, too, are otherworldly in some ways, bravely untouched by human frailty or basic moral decency.
We’ve been through it ourselves
I’ve been tricked, and I am eager to hear stories about others who have gone through similar experiences. Victims of scammers are often left with the question: Why didn’t I see it? At the start of the pandemic, I became obsessed with a podcast called Do You Know Mordechai?, about a man who lied to women he met on dating apps. I wasn’t obsessed with him or his lies – which weren’t all that interesting compared with, say, men who lie about being surgeons or spies or airline pilots – but I was obsessed with how the women found out, how they described the way that he’d lie and have an answer for everything, and how they discovered the others he had lied to.
It feels awfully humiliating – and disorienting – to be conned. I wrote to the journalist who created the podcast to say that I’d had an ex who lied to me, and that she used similar patterns of speech, phrases and methods of manipulation to avoid being caught and – when she was found out – to avoid accountability. The podcast host expressed surprise that a woman had lied in these ways; female con artists are rarer.
We want to know we wouldn’t get taken (or if we did, that we’d be good or cool about it)
Sometimes I watch TikTok videos of hikers who come across bears in the wild. I become transfixed because I want to know what I should do if I ever leave my couch and encounter one. I want to be prepared. When I was a preteen, I went through a phase of reading what’s now called “sick lit” – essentially, 1970s young-adult memoirs about suicide, drug addiction, child abuse, cancer, anorexia, anything that was a big problem. I loved those books likely because I didn’t have any big problems – or none that could be written into a tidy sensationalized narrative and sold in paperback at the Scholastic Book Fair.
In my 20s, desperate to be a writer but without much life experience to draw from, I was still transfixed by stories of personal tragedy. I dated many people with addictions and trauma, and I styled myself as the kind of partner who was loyal and stayed through the hard things. I thought that if I was tough enough, I wouldn’t be taken advantage of. Looking back, I know that what I thought was loyalty was actually a lack of boundaries, which made me an easy mark.
The adrenaline rush of waiting for a liar to be caught
We have a compulsion to believe that everyone is good inside. Stories that trouble this assumption are naturally compelling: They allow us to contemplate who we are and the honesty we think we value, and how we might have empathy for those who are deceptive or cruel to us. Part of the reason we watch movies about “bad guys” all the time is the questions they raise. Will they get caught? Will they ever face consequences? Will they ever atone for their actions? Stories of liars who stop lying – who recover from factitious disorders – are rare. But the media about liars do have resolutions.
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