Deception is as old as human history, and efforts to catch liars at their game probably are just as old. Most of us lie every day, apparently, from white lies to whoppers. A famous study at the University of Massachusetts found that “60 percent of people lied at least once during a 10-minute conversation and told an average of two to three lies.”
Most of us are not very good at spotting a lie. And science, despite its many triumphs, so far hasn’t done much better. Lie detectors, or polygraph machines, aren’t reliable enough to be used in most courts, and while brain researchers keep working at unraveling the mechanism of lying, they have come up with nothing definitive.
Very few individuals are gifted at detecting lies.
Researcher Maureen O’Sullivan, a professor of psychology at the University of San Francisco, and her colleagues screened about 13,000 people for lie-detecting gifts and identified 31, whom they called “wizards,” who were unusually successful at spotting lies. These gifts appeared to come from both natural talent and concentrated practice.
“They tend to be older, too, with a lot of relevant life experience,” Sullivan told the American Medical Association’s 23rd Annual Science Reporters Conference in Washington, D.C.
The rest of us are no better off than our ancestors at knowing when we’re being lied to. Even so, knowing a few things about lies and their tellers may help us over time.
Liars and their lies
Women and men lie about equally, but the sexes often have different reasons for lying, researchers at the University of Massachusetts found.
“Women were more likely to lie to make the person they were talking to feel good, while men lied most often to make themselves look better,” psychologist and researcher Robert S. Feldman, who heads the report, said.
Why do we lie so much? On his website, Feldman says:
People lie to be agreeable or to make us feel better about ourselves. Of course, people also lie to build themselves up or to gain some advantage over us.
And of course we often lie to ourselves to avoid facing the uncomfortable tension between life as we’d like it to be and life as it really is.
Spotting a lie is more art than science. So, when you’re wondering if you are being deceived, tread carefully, observe thoughtfully and look for alternative ways to verify your suspicions. For example, liars often are tripped up by the details of their stories. It takes a good deal of thought to invent and remember specifics to support a false story.
Here are 10 of the more popular techniques recommended by researchers and others working in law enforcement and investigations:
1. Voice changes
Changes in a person’s normal behavior can betray discomfort of some sort and might be a tip-off to lies. These departures from normal behavior are most useful when you are observing someone you know well and are familiar with their normal patterns and departures from those patterns.
If you don’t know your subject well, spend time paying attention to how she or he normally talks and acts when relaxed. Is her speech normally slow or quick, loud or soft? What is the quality of his voice usually like? Then, watch for distinct, but not subtle, changes from the normal pattern, retired FBI criminal profiler Gregg McCrary tells Real Simple.
Guilt and the accompanying anxiety are thought to cause some people (perhaps not accomplished liars, though) to squirm and fidget. But experts disagree on whether fidgeting really is a tell-tale sign of lying. Again, it may be more important to know whether fidgeting is typical for them or if it is an unusual behavior.
Some people do the opposite: They cope with stress by standing still or freezing. “[I]f you observe a rigid, catatonic stance devoid of movement, it is often a huge warning sign that something is off,” according to Lillian Glass, author of the book, “The Body Language of Liars.”
3. Protesting too much
“The lady doth protest too much, methinks,” says Queen Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, as they watch a play in which a character swears she’ll never marry if her husband dies. The queen is pointing out that liars sometimes give themselves away by making too big a point of proclaiming their innocence. A twist on this is when someone loudly denies guilt or takes offense at the idea they might be thought guilty although no one has actually accused them. This hostile defensiveness can include finger-pointing.
4. Vowing honesty
Liars often work too hard to demonstrate their honesty, and that can be a dead giveaway. They’ll make too much use of vows and expressions like “to tell the truth,” “to be perfectly honest,” “I swear on a stack of Bibles” and “as God is my witness.”
5. Subtle eye movements
Lying is thought to be stressful for most liars. They have to think about what’s true and concoct a story that departs from the truth, causing a level of strain that, even when it’s subtle, may be observable. This stress can show up in a number of unconscious gestures. Liars are said to look away or perhaps glance at an exit, for example, betraying a desire to escape, says Psychology Today. Liars sometimes point their feet or even move their bodies toward the exit.