21 | Miller's Law

Miller’s Law: In order to understand what a person is telling you, you must first accept that what the person has said is the complete truth, and then ask yourself: What is it true of? Wendell C. Rudacille, Identifying Lies in Disguise

I think they came into the house to steal guns. She was doing laundry, probably downstairs, pressing and changing clothing from a storage area, and was walking upstairs to get more clothes to take back into the basement storage area. And they were stealing things when she walked in on them. That’s when she got killed. Duane Frye, 2006

Harvard psychologist George A. Miller was a pioneer in cognitive science. The psycholinguistic rule named after him also makes biological sense. Because evasion and concealment require less energy and produce less anxiety than out-and-out lies, a liar is more likely to tell the truth about some things than to lie about everything. But if every lie contains at least a grain of truth, what truth is he trying to hide? And how will it leak out?

Liars aren’t the only ones who combine fact and fiction to craft a convincing story.

Novelists spin plots from real-life experience and steal traits from relatives and friends. So, according to Rudacille, do liars sandwich unprovable assertions between facts to create “implied truth” and increase the “truth sale value” of their words. The difference between liars and novelists isn’t process or intent. We fiction writers want our stories to ring true, but we don’t sell them as truth.

More sophisticated liars (Rudacille calls them manipulative sociopaths) construct plausible-sounding hypotheticals to appeal to the interviewer’s rationality and emotionally distance themselves from the crime. Drawing from psychologist Virginia Satir, Rudacille calls this going into “computer mode”. But the subconscious leaks from computed stories too.  

When Duane was interviewed by cold case cops in 2006, he presented a detailed hypothetical of how his wife could have been killed in a burglary gone wrong. The key elements were guns, multiple intruders and laundry. On its face, each assertion is plausible.

Duane owned $7000 to $10,000 worth of guns. The Saturday morning of the murder, he and Betty were cleaning house; linens were bunched and stripped from beds. And there could have been more than one intruder: the loot was wiped clean of prints and bore signs that someone had worn gloves. The problem isn’t those elements. It is the house itself.

The Frye house was fifty feet wide and thirty feet deep. Entering the front door, you immediately faced stairs going up to the second floor and down to the basement. A narrow hallway ran past the stairs, to the kitchen on the left and a powder room on the right. Past the powder room lay the utility room and the walk-through door to the garage where the loot and Betty’s body were found. To get to the garage, you had to go through the utility room. The floorplan gave no room to maneuver, the distances were short, and the space was tight.

Duane hypothesized Betty was doing laundry, moving back and forth between the second floor, the utility room on the first floor, and the basement. Clocks and appliances were looted from the kitchen and upstairs bedrooms. Travelling the same path, how could she and a burglar—not just one, but two—not immediately encounter each other? And how did she end up in the garage?

Duane’s prized possessions were his rifles and shotguns. He didn’t lock his doors, but he locked his guns in a cabinet in the basement. The cabinet wasn’t a display case; he’d made it out of ¾ inch particle board and spray-painted it grayish white. The cabinet’s padlock and hasp were intact, and the guns were untouched. Entering the basement, burglars might think there’d be guns from the reloading equipment nearby. But why bother taking cheap appliances if they came to steal guns? And how would they know Duane owned guns?

Miller’s Law requires you to accept a statement as true, and then ask what it’s true of—the subconscious leak. Duane valued his guns enough to speculate multiple burglars would break into his home to steal them. Was Betty doing laundry when she was killed? The only person who would know that was her killer.

Does every lie contain some truth?

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