“Mr. Beaver, I always thought that I was a good judge of character, and am very trusting, but must have the word “sucker” in bright, neon green tattooed on my forehead. Constantly, I am hiring the wrong people to work in my accounting firm and wind up feeling very sad and alone when the women I date turn out to just be after money, gifts and weekends out of town at my expense,” an email from “Ben” began.
“You had a couple of terrific articles about how to avoid being scammed and learning how to say ‘no’ that were based on interviews with a psychology professor. I’ll bet that he would be an ideal source of pointers on staying away from the wrong people, and I imagine that there are a lot of folks like me who could use that information.”
We Aren’t Very Good at Seeing Deception
Ben is absolutely correct, and psychology professor Luis Vega of California State University, Bakersfield, puts it this way: “Research has shown that the average person can tell lies from truths at a level slightly better than by flipping a coin.
“There is a group of people who, for complex reasons, consistently make the wrong choice, failing to see and listen to what others view as warning signs which shout, ‘This person gives me a bad feeling. Don’t hire that person! Don’t take that person as a client, and certainly don’t DATE that person!’”
As an attorney, I have found that even in my profession, with clients like Ben, lawyers often engage in victim blaming, with a “just say no” knee-jerk response, asking, “Why you did get into this relationship in the first place?”
Professor Vega looks deeper:
“The need for human connection is existential. We are social beings, needing comfort, support, love, bonding, protection and validation from each other. People who jumped from the Twin Towers held hands. It was the last testimony to their existence and the need to be with someone in those terrifying few moments.
“As a community we ostracize and punish those who violate our shared expectations and norms. But as individuals, we are left to our own devices to spot shady characters, avoid those who may do us harm, and protect our well-being. Our defenses are not foolproof in distinguishing friend from foe.
“Our judgment – Should I hire him? Go out with her? – is frequently influenced by wishful thinking, ignoring evidence of bad behavior, swayed by their appearance, and our own existing stereotypes and prejudices, which make excuses for what – later – is clearly seen as unacceptable or dishonest conduct.
“The Bens of the world attract and willingly succumb to the will of those who manipulate and impress them, acting nice, using flattery and engaging in active deception.
“So, we tend to convince ourselves of the correctness of the decision to be involved with this person and rationalize misgiving and their behaviors we do not want to see. Denial and self-delusion are huge factors which take place in our minds and our hearts, our emotions and our actions.
‘“But I love him! It’s love, that’s why I am here!’ When we say that love is blind, it really is, and obscures accurate feelings.”
The Best Predictor of Future Behavior Is Past Behavior
I asked Vega, “How do we get to a situation where we once thought he or she was the one, or, this person will make a superb vice president in charge of marketing?’
“It is by a failure to suspend skepticism,” he replied, adding, “We look at all the things that do not provide insight into who this person really is, including: physical appearance, prestigious titles, the trappings of status, flattery and exuding confidence.
“In a job interview, the red flags include inflated qualifications, being overly confidant, qualifications that do not check out, and always saying the right thing. A question that should be asked more often – and which can really save the day – is, ‘What areas of improvement would you like to work on yourself?’
“If they say, none, don’t hire this person!”
“Romantically, as we are seeking a connection, we ask for trouble by overlooking evidence of their shortcomings, such as: lying, insincerity, not keeping commitments, exaggeration, borrowing money, manipulation or bringing fear into the relationship.”
We all know the saying that a leopard does not change its spots. To Vega, this translates as, “The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.”
So, how can we discover those things in their background that spell trouble?
“You’ve got to do a proper background check,” Vega underscores. “This means checking references, college degrees, past employment and never trust before you verify!”
From hearing the horror stories of ripped-off lovers, lawyers recommend having a real background check conducted by a private investigator, not one of these $29 internet specials, which are often worthless. Especially for older and emotionally vulnerable people – who have been the victims of romantic scams, losing money or discovering that the person they had fallen in love with was a fake – most private investigators, police officers and lawyers advise obtaining as much information about any new romantic interest as early as possible, especially if you see dishonesty or things just do not add up.
In my law practice, I tell vulnerable clients to first ask the person for permission to do a background check on them using their driver’s license, passport, medical ID or other means to check them out. Someone legit may be surprised at the request but should cooperate fully, especially if they have spoken in terms of a future together.
But if they refuse, you have two choices that every private investigator, cop and divorce lawyer I’ve spoken with on this subject recommends:
- While they are sleeping, use your cellphone to take screenshots of their driver’s license, passport and medical insurance cards – anything that can be the basis for a detailed search of their criminal or civil litigation or employment history.
- Pull the plug on the relationship immediately, because a lack of transparency in a relationship means there never was one to begin with.
So, what is Professor Vega’s best advice for any interpersonal relationship, be it romantic or employer/employee?
“Go slow. Never trust before you verify. Be aware that the ideal sucker is someone with a low self-esteem who doesn’t feel they merit a good person in their life. They telegraph vulnerability, and smiley is always out there, picking up on these signals.
“Your best defense is in knowing as much as you can about this other person. Know yourself – your weaknesses – and find out as much as you can about the other person before you get involved.”
After attending Loyola University School of Law, H. Dennis Beaver joined California's Kern County District Attorney's Office, where he established a Consumer Fraud section. He is in the general practice of law and writes a syndicated newspaper column, "You and the Law." Through his column he offers readers in need of down-to-earth advice his help free of charge. "I know it sounds corny, but I just love to be able to use my education and experience to help, simply to help. When a reader contacts me, it is a gift."
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