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The Reasons We Lie: Part I

Updated: May 29, 2022

I was chatting with my brilliant editor about the Johnny Depp v. Amber Heard trial, and she mentioned it would make an interesting blog post. I had to agree–it was obviously of interest to the public, but all of the comments I’ve been reading lately also line up perfectly with my current research topic: Lying.

Photo by Toa Heftiba | Unspash

How and why people lie, how lies are investigated, the different techniques used to separate lies from the truth, etc. would be too much to cover thoroughly.So for now, I’m just going to share a few different reasons we’ve seen (or suspected) a lie in an investigation. And even with those parameters, I’ll be sharing in more than one post. Perhaps this will be my first series within the blog; perhaps I can add new and particularly unique reasons why people lie I find them.

Each of the cases involves my speculation both as to whether or not they are/were lying and, if they are/were, and what their motivation might be. I’ll state that, but I must be very clear that a lie is often hard to prove definitively, and the motivation is rarely clear or simple. Like investigators first tackling a crime, I’m sharing ideas surrounding these cases as a first step. Any concerns that resonate would then need to be investigated further and corroborated.

Johnny Depp v. Amber Heard: Reputation & Money

Johnny Depp sued Amber Heard, his ex-wife, for defamation of character, and she countersued for the same. There were a fair amount of issues before that, including a short marriage and divorce, but what’s been on fire in the media is the defamation trial.

A few things make this trial incredibly interesting to me. First, it seems to be more of a popularity contest in the media than a trial. Both sides have their PR teams working overtime (Heard fired one team already).

Second, the general community is chiming in on the televised trial with their theories about who’s lying (almost always Heard) to an astonishing degree. It isn’t often that we see someone who reported abuse so openly mocked on social media, but Amber Heard has been the recipient of a tremendous amount of ridicule, particularly on TikTok.

Third, I’ve been amazed by the amount of criticism related to how the attorneys are performing (almost always negative feedback about Heard’s legal team), and who is believed to be telling the truth (almost always Depp).

And what makes this such a great case for a blog post about lies? Nearly everything that’s being shared in the trial is being discussed in radically different ways by both parties.In other words, one or both of them is lying. And a significant amount of what is being shared can only be partially corroborated if it can be corroborated at all (i.e., incidents that happened when only Heard and Depp were present).

Despite what is clearly a great case, the public is expressing who they believe is lying and who is telling the truth. Shouldn’t we find our confidence as a community concerning? If social media is any indication, we don’t seem to; we seem very comfortable trusting our gut.

Alicia Esteve Head: Fame & Human Connection

Using the name Tania Head, Alicia Esteve Head claimed to be a survivor of the World Trade Center attacks on September 11, 2001. She also claimed that she had a fiancé who died in the World Trade Center attacks, a man who did exist, but never knew her. It took until 2007 for people to realize she had been lying the entire time–she wasn’t even in the country at the time of the attacks. In those six years, she rose to a prominent position within the World Trade Center Survivors' Network, ultimately serving as their president. Ultimately, she was discovered by the media when they attempted to research her story for a 9/11 survivor piece.

Head left New York once she was discovered. Shortly after her disappearance, an anonymous email indicated that she had died by suicide, but that was later proven false. It seems she is alive and well, living outside of the United States.

What was the reason for her lie? She never disclosed any kind of reasoning for her story, but the only motivation most people can come up with is attention.

Did she see a strong community forming and desire so intensely to be part of it that she manufactured a lie? Maybe she didn’t mean for it to go so far. Or maybe she began believing her own lie and was just as surprised as the rest of us when the truth came out.

Jay Wilds: Avoiding Punishment

I hadn’t heard about the case of Hae Min Lee until I listened to the podcast Serial. The podcast gave me a lot to think about without really uncovering anything that would lead to an immediate exoneration of Adnan Syed, Lee’s ex-boyfriend who had been convicted of her murder.

One thing that always bothered me was the alternative theory of the crime, or more accurately, the absence of an alternative theory. Then, on episode 3 of Undisclosed, a podcast hosted by supporters of Syed, I finally heard an explanation that made sense to me.

What I couldn’t explain was why Jay Wilds, a witness with nothing to gain or lose by coming forward and accusing Syed, would accuse him and lead police to Lee’s body. It didn’t make any sense that he would have killed Lee, so if his story was a lie, how did he know where the body was?

The alternative theory is that the police found the body and felt Syed was guilty, but they didn’t have quite enough evidence to convict, so they brought Jay in, threatened him with serious drug charges, and then gave him a statement to read that would implicate Syed. On Undisclosed, the host discusses the “tapping” noise you can hear a few times when Jay strays from his story, and the theory is he was reading what the police asked him to say.

This isn’t an anti-police stance (because the theory is that the police framed Syed); if it is true, it would seem more likely that it’s a case of noble cause corruption. Noble cause corruption occurs when good people with good intentions do illegal things to get to the desired end. If you read our earlier blog post about ethical considerations, you may recognize the ethical framework as the ends justifying the means. Is it possible that the police felt confident they had the murderer but not enough evidence to convince a jury?

If that is what happened, Wilds would have been in a room with authority figures who were telling him that they had the right guy (and he likely would have believed them) and that if he helped them, they’d drop the charges they had against him. That would be a significant motivation, wouldn’t it? To date, Jay has told different versions of what happened the night he claims Syed killed Lee, but in every version, he sticks to his assertion that Syed was the murderer.

Resources for Citizen Investigators & Internet Sleuths

As I wrap up this content, I can’t ignore the “how” questions that have come up. How did these cases even start? And how were so many of them successful for so long? Each of these cases has unique considerations in that area as well, so stay tuned for more on that in a future post.

One of my favorite books about lying isn’t even focused on crime–just why humans lie in different situations. Check out Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz. It’s thick with data but easy to read thanks to the author’s writing style.

Did I miss a common reason for lying? Or a variation that deserves to be listed separately? Drop your ideas in the comments!

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