We manipulate and deceive good lievers

Recognize liarsLydia Benecke: "Listen you Not on your Gut feeling! "

Fraudsters, impostors, liars - there are always people who are fooling others on a grand scale. They lie, gamble and often blind people for years. Why and how do you do it? And how can we find out about them? The criminal psychologist Lydia Benecke on the psychology of manipulators.

Most recently it was probably the Wirecard scandal in which many of us asked ourselves: How can it be that these guys managed to deceive so many people so successfully for so long? And how do you have to be mentally equipped to pull off something like that?

Lydia Benecke is also worried about such questions. The criminal psychologist explores the dark side of us, so to speak. Her main occupation is therapy for sexual and violent offenders. For years she has been concerned with the question of which psychological models exist for behavior that harms other people. At the moment she is particularly interested in how manipulation works.

"In the case of a large number of crimes, an important aspect is that the perpetrators do not think of themselves that they are an evil person or that they do not want to see it that way. Very many perpetrators have cognitive distortions in order to justify themselves."
Lydia Benecke, criminal psychologist

According to the psychologist, an important aspect is how the perpetrators see themselves - or not. The so-called cognitive bias plays a major role in this. It helps them to justify themselves to themselves and to make themselves believe that their actions are actually not that bad.

Cognitive bias cancels out a feeling of injustice

In the case of impostors or fraudsters, for example, a typical cognitive distortion would be to shift the blame: Others could have checked it out, asked the right questions. Naivety is attributed and complicity is attributed to others if they are betrayed and lied to.

Good fraudsters or manipulators also need something else, explains Lydia Benecke: They should believe that they are smarter than everyone else and that they can do everything well and appear so confident. At the same time, they should have as little fear as possible of getting caught.

"Good liars and manipulators should have a mixture of a little megalomaniac and as little fearful as possible - to put it bluntly."
Lydia Benecke, criminal psychologist

But if fraudsters and liars are convinced of themselves, it also makes it harder to convict them. "All these theories and books about how to recognize liars are very entertaining - and just not scientifically tenable," says the criminal psychologist.

Researching lies is often wrong

There are many misconceptions in the research of lies. A widespread one is, for example, that one can recognize lies based on human micromimicry. It has now been proven that this does not work. Among other things, because not all people sent the same signals or the same strength when lying.

"From a scientific point of view, polygraphs are nonsense."
Lydia Benecke, criminal psychologist

For the same reason, says Lydia Benecke, lie detectors do not work either: They measure stress signals. But if you are convinced of yourself, you may not send any. Conversely, suspects could wrongly send out stress signals. And finally, there are a lot of tricks to outsmart such detectors - pinching your buttocks at the right moment, for example.

Gut feeling is not immune to deception

So technology doesn't help. And the good old gut feeling? Definitely not, warns the psychologist. Lying research also gave us something useful - including the knowledge that people are less likely to be caught lying when they appear very self-confident. The self-confidence tricked the gut feeling. Science has shown that gut instinct is an incredibly large source of error.

"I always say: don't listen to your gut feeling!"
Lydia Benecke, criminal psychologist

Manipulators took advantage of exactly that, according to the criminal psychologist. Because if someone manages to generate sympathy or trust in us, then it doesn't matter whether his lies are brilliant or weak in terms of content, because we would no longer examine them intensively. Because of the good gut feeling.

"Really good liars must first and foremost be good emotion manipulators."
Lydia Benecke, criminal psychologist

But the psyche of the duped also helps with cheating, explains Lydia Benecke: When we find someone sympathetic, we tend to interpret possibly dubious statements in such a way that they fit our picture again and unconsciously confirm our positive assumption, she says. She calls this phenomenon confirmation error. Her advice: We always have to question, even - or especially - when we find someone sympathetic.

"Even if you find someone sympathetic, you have to try again and again to use your ratio and, despite the sympathy, ask yourself whether everything is correct."
Lydia Benecke, criminal psychologist

That is problematic, she admits, because you shouldn't exaggerate: "If you question everything about every person all the time, then you would be totally suspicious, you would no longer be able to have a relationship at all." A healthy dose would also be important when questioning.

"The silence of people who overhear something like this is part of the problem."
Lydia Benecke, criminal psychologist, on the silence of victims and observers

What also helps fraudsters, liars and impostors: when the victims keep silent - be it out of fear, shame or comfort. Lydia Benecke believes that if more people knew how manipulation works, then they would be better protected from it. With her new book "Fraudsters, Impostors, Blenders - The Psychology of Manipulation", she says she wants to contribute. Here she collects many different cases and explains the psychology behind them. It should appear in March.

In an interview with Sebastian Sonntag, Lydia Benecke also reports what it is like to work with criminal offenders and what their work can actually achieve. She also reveals how she got her job. Amongst other things. Click on Play to hear the whole conversation and also to take part in our "Stories of the Horse".