How To Lie Without Actually Telling A Lie

How To Lie Without Actually Telling A Lie

We all lie sometimes, whether you’re seeking to hide your true feelings about someone’s fruitcake or a housing a deep, dark secret. Nonetheless, most of us don’t enjoy being dishonest and you don’t have to be. By utilising misdirection, you can lead others to believe a lie without ever telling it.

Photos by Tracy Whiteside (Shutterstock), Gunnar Grimnes, and Robodread (Shutterstock).

What Is Misdirection?

If you’ve ever seen a magic show, you know all about misdirection. Magicians direct their audience’s attention away from the trick so they don’t see what’s happening. Because we’re not paying attention, we miss the obvious and see what we’re asked to see. Let’s take a look at two common examples.

The Email Forward Card Trick

You may have received this email forward before. You’re presented with a set of five cards and asked to choose one:


You’ll pick your card and remember it. In the next image, you won’t see any cards at all:


Just to be sure you’re not looking at the original image, there’s yet another image without any cards in it:


Suddenly, your card is gone:


How did that happen? Well, not a single card in the image above was pictured in the original. All the cards are different, so no matter which card you chose you won’t see it. You will see five similar cards, however, and because you were spending your mental efforts on remembering your card, rather than the five originals, you neglected to realise this. You were tricked by the powers of misdirection.


Inattentional Blindness

Misdirection works because of a psychological phenomenon called inattentional blindness. David McRaney, author of the book and blog on self-delusion You Are Not So Smart, explains how it works:

You are “blind” to that which you are not attentive. As events unfold before you, you tend to pay attention to a small cone of information and then, when thinking back on what you saw, you tend to believe you saw more than you did. Consciousness is all about filling in the gaps. You assume you know what’s happening right outside whatever it is you are focused on, but all over the place, you are imagining the things you can’t see.

Need more proof? Watch this video:

The video asks you to count the number of passes to each player, but while all the players are passing a ball a man in a gorilla costume walks through the scene. This happens very obviously, but most first-time viewers miss the gorilla and are shocked to find out it was even present because their attention was diverted to another task. This video used misdirection to prevent you from noticing what was clearly right in front of you. We’re going to use this same method to lie without lying. [clear]

Use Misdirection To Lie Without Lying

Lying takes effort. When you tell the truth, you simply remember something and say it. When you lie, you consider the truth, whether or not you want to share it, decide that you don’t, concoct a lie, and try to say that lie as naturally as you would the truth. Remembering all those steps is hard enough, but certainly not as hard as carrying them out in a matter of seconds. Misdirection still requires more work than truth-telling, but you don’t need to figure out a believable alternative to use it. Instead, you simply need to focus the subject’s attention on something else and let them concoct the lie using their own imagination. How do you actually do this? Let’s consider some examples.

Conceal Your Own Secret


Let’s pretend that 10 years ago you had a serious drug problem. You’ve since recovered and your life is great, but you’re out on a first date with a person you really like and the waiter asks you to order drinks. Your date orders alcohol and you order a water. Your date finds this strange and starts to pry. “Why aren’t you drinking?” he or she asks. While I’d argue that owning your problems right away is a better strategy in this situation, and you should be proud of overcoming something so difficult, for the sake of this scenario you’re not ready to do that just yet. You have to lie or misdirect.

Lying becomes especially difficult in a situation like this because you 1) have to remember the lie you tell to every person who asks you why you don’t drink and 2) you have to remember who you lied to and who you didn’t. On top of that, if this relationship goes anywhere you have to tell your date the truth eventually. If you have to recant a lie later, it can damage trust between the two of you. Misdirection, on the other hand, is very simple. Instead of saying something like “I don’t like to drink” you can tell a story about another addict you know. Perhaps you’ve seen a family member fall into addiction, too, or you remember the story of a friend from your recovery program. Tell their story, and let your date conclude that you don’t drink because of their experience. Although I’ve never had a problem with addiction (with the exception of the Taco Zone food truck in Los Angeles), I give this kind of explanation when people ask me why I don’t do drugs or drink very often. Nobody ever pushes for more information.

Your personal secrets will vary, but the concept remains the same. Talk about someone or something else in a way that encourages the listener to assume that story is an answer to their question. While not entirely honest, recounting truthful details won’t require telling a lie.


Conceal a Friend’s Secret


Consider your friend Brian is married to Candice and having an affair with another woman. You’re speaking to another friend, Larry, who thinks something’s up. Putting all the ethical issues of keeping this secret aside, you don’t want to spill the beans. The problem is, Larry guesses and asks you directly if you think Brian is cheating on Candice. You know, and don’t want to tell the truth, so you can choose to lie or misdirect.

In this situation, lying is as simple as saying “no”. The words are easy, but that provides very little information and you’ll likely be pressed to lie further. If you choose to misdirect, you can say something that’s actually true and change the course of the conversation. For example: “Brian loves Candice.” If true, it implies that Brian wouldn’t cheat because he loves his wife. It also asks your friend Larry to consider this as a factor which can quickly derail his thought process.

Of course, people will see right through your attempt if you aren’t convincing in your tone of voice. When you’re learning to misdirect effectively, two things can help. First, prefacing your statement with the actual lie (“No, Brian loves Candice”) can help you sound more convincing. Second, pre-emptively concoct your misdirection attempt. Being prepared will make it easier to remember your tactics so you’re not forced to figure them out on the spot.

It also helps to have a few alternatives ready. For example, you could say something like “Brian works twelve hour days” (implying he wouldn’t have time) or “I just saw them last week and they seemed perfectly happy” (implying that nothing is wrong). While it may sound simplistic, these statements are very effective when you speak them with the confidence of the truth.


Pre-Emptively Misdirect


Misdirecting on the spot requires a quick response. If you’re trying to keep a secret, pre-emptive misdirection allows you far more time to think. You didn’t see the gorilla in the example video above because you were first asked to pay attention to something else (the passing of a basketball) instead. This method of misdirection is pre-emptive, causing you to completely miss important information without ever realise it. You can do the same thing when lying.

In the case of your former drug problem, instead of telling the story when asked you can simply share that information in conversation before ever going out on a date. When you don’t want to drink, your date won’t even think to ask why and you’ll never be accused of dishonesty because no situation provoking a lie will even occur. That said, it’s more difficult to find a way to introduce a story about an alcoholic friend or family member into the conversation, but if you listen for an opening you’ll be able to find away. After all, when you get to know people you’ll inevitably talk about others in your lives.


You Need To Practise Misdirection isn’t an inherent talent. You need to practise if you ever hope to convince anyone of what you’re saying. While the level of difficulty rests below lying, misdirection still requires more effort. You still have to think of a few things rather than just remember the truth. You have to present what you say naturally and not like a nervous, guilty person. While misdirection will come easier than flat-out fabrication, it still takes work. You can succeed at lying without lying if you’ve tried and failed before.

All of that said, don’t use the benefits of misdirection unless you have a very good reason. Privacy matters, and sometimes you have to go a little south of the truth to keep it, but that doesn’t mean you should lie or misdirect maliciously. If you hone your skills, use them responsibly. Misdirection can be an evil trick, but you can use it for the right reasons, too.

Lifehacker’s Evil Week is all about topics such as password cracking, social hacking and other ‘questionable’ tricks. Knowledge is power, and whether you use that power for good or evil is in your hands.


    • Julia: “There will be no carbon tax under the government I lead”

      That doesn’t seem like misdirection at all, seems like a flat out lie.

      Had to point out that politicians lie directly all the time, not all of their bs is misdirection

      • Changed circumstances are different to dishonesty.
        There’s no indication that when she said that, she intended to go back on her word. The need to form minority government meant that things had to change, and whichever side ended up gaining the support of the cross-benchers would have had to make concessions they’d not have liked to get that support.
        It’s entirely subjective as to whether it was a good decision on Gillard’s behalf, but she didn’t lie. She made a promise that she expected to keep (minority government being unprecedented in modern federal politics), and was forced to alter her position.

    • The good thing about this Evil Week is that since the techniques used to do ‘evil’ are given to us, it should be easy to see the ways to break them. With regards to misdirection, breaking it is actually quite easy. If someone answers your question by stating a related fact which isn’t a direct answer, ask them again. I had to do this at my workplace recently, and while it made the other person agitated, I was able to get the information I needed out of them.

      “Why aren’t you drinking?” “I once knew someone who got very sick from alcohol poisoining.” “So is that why you don’t drink?”

      Essentially, this is what 7:30 Report interviewers do when faced with politicians who misdirect. If someone misdirects after being asked again, then you should immediately know there’s some explicit reason that they won’t answer the question.

    • Politicians reduce lying – by simply not answering questions. As per misdirection in the article, they choose to answer a different question. If you persist, they respond with “I’ve already answered that”.

  • I used to lie when I was younger because stupidly I cared what people thought about me and as I grew up I simply withheld things I didn’t want to tell people (which is my right as long as I am not telling half-truths) I also picked up misdirection as well but it only works as long as they don’t press for information then you are forced to tell them or lie which I would rather not intentionally do.

  • You have to be careful. I was brought up that misdirection is not a bad thing, it can protect the ones you love from being hurt over something that is not worth hurting them over. However my ex-partner found out about these “misdirections” and excused me of being a compulsive liar and furthermore called off the relationship. I never actually once lied, I always “misdirected” as I thought these issues were not needed to be said.

    It can come in handy if you have a fantastic memory, however mine is shocking so I was caught out. I wouldn’t recommend it, but definitely a helpful “talent”. Probably best to be used outside of a close relationship.

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