How to Tell If Someone is Lying

articles Mar 04, 2020

"Do you like my new haircut on me?" your friend asks. "I can't decide if it's flattering or not." You have a split second to formulate your response before your hesitation starts to show. You don't like the haircut as much as you favored her hair long. But you know that your friend is reactive. You know she is sensitive, having begun the divorce process recently, and you see this conversation could get- no pun intended-very hairy if you are sincere.

So, "Yes, I think it's a lovely cut on you," you answer. "It's just a little white lie," you tell yourself.  Crisis averted.  

Have you ever told a little white lie, such as the one above? It is a rare person who could say they have not sometimes, or even regularly, said a seemingly harmless lie or also strategically omitted the truth for what they deem to be a good reason. And this isn't just speculation. Solid science stands behind it.

The Verdict is In-Everyone's Telling Lies

On a nightly talk-show,  Bella M. DePaulo sat beside former Governor Lowell Weicker, who said, "one thing that really has to be thrown out with the rest of the garbage here is people that think that all politicians lie. They do not."  Weicker went on to affirm, "If we accept what ís going on here, we'll admit that lying is a normal part of life in this country."

DePaulo, a Dr. of psychology at the University of California, would go on to research whether this statement was true, sparked by a personal fascination about whether or not lying is indeed a common occurrence. 

To explore lying in more depth, Dr. DePaulo and a team of researchers compared two groups of people- one taken from the local community and the other taken from the college at which she taught. The team instructed both groups to carry a diary with them for an entire week, recording each time the had a social interaction lasting more than 10 minutes and recording each time they told a lie, including details about the fabrication.

In the study's resulting report, DePaulo describes

"147 participants had recorded a total of 1,535 lies in their diaries. This amounted to two lies a day for the college students, or one lie in every three of their social interactions, and one lie a day for the people in the community, or one lie in every five of their social interactions.

Although the participants in these studies were not politicians, I knew I had a response to Governor Weickerís insistence that we should throw out with the rest of the garbage the idea that all politicians lie. Indeed. We should replace it with the presumption that all people lie."

What is a Lie?

The literal definition from dictionary.com is:

  • "a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive; an intentional untruth; a falsehood.
  • something intended or serving to convey a false impression; imposture: His flashy car was a lie that deceived no one.
  • an inaccurate or false statement; a falsehood."

Yet in real life, we could say that lying and untruthfulness exist on more of a spectrum. This spectrum of lies quantifies untruths based on the relationship in which we tell a lie, the severity of the deceit itself, the intention behind the falsehood, or even how frequently an individual is telling lies.

Most would agree that a white lie such as "Oh, I'm so sorry I was late, I had trouble getting the car to start," is quite different from, "No, I did not have an affair with him!" (if in actuality, the affair occurred).  

Lying is Difficult to Detect

Before we delve into some strategies for how you can spot people who lie to you, it's essential to realize that lying is difficult to detect, even for emotionally intelligent people. While our intuition is often able to capture deceit, our conscious minds may not take the clues.

When a person fidgets, avoids eye contact or displays other behavior that implies nervousness, this could signal the person is not being forthcoming. Unfortunately, many signs of lying could also be signs of genuine nervousness-such as with those who suffer social anxiety. Anxious behaviors could even be the result of nerves on a first date, a big interview, or other circumstances in a person's life.

Although spotting a lie is tricky business, there are some pretty reliable indicators that the other person may be lying:

1) Grooming behaviors: It is often easy to tell someone who is lying by any unusual behaviors they display. Grooming oneself here and there throughout the day is typical- think to push your hair out of your eyes, relieving a little scratch on your ear, or applying chapstick once or twice. When these behaviors become repetitive or a person carries them out at unusual moments, they may have something to hide. Because the nervous system may be in overdrive when someone is attempting to cover the truth, a grooming behavior may occur almost automatically as a way to stay calm.

2) Deviation from a baseline of honesty:  People who lie may give themselves away after initially behaving honestly. Take, for example, if you ask an acquaintance a low-pressure question such as 'what is your favorite color?' or 'did you ever travel out of the country growing up?' More than likely, they have no reason to lie about such things. Make a close observation of their facial expressions, body language, and energy when answering basic questions. If, later on, their behaviors change, this may be a sign they are beginning to lie.

3) Vagueness:  When a person attempts to lie, they may be fumbling for believable details at the moment. In an attempt to preserve their story, they may reasonably avoid adding too many features into their account. If you are listening to someone relay a story or comment and notice their description is vague, pay attention to your observation. Vagueness may indicate a liar.

4) Jerky Movements:  Similar to inappropriate grooming behaviors, erratic body movements such as jerking one's head when it is the expected moment to respond. It is as if their instinctual mind is attempting to 'pull back' or retract from telling the truth.

5) Repetition of speech: Blatant repetition may be a more likely tool for those lying maliciously. If a person wishes to deceive you, repeating your questions back to you before answering or repeating their response could be a tactic to buy them time or distract you. When you are forthcoming, do you feel the need to repeat questions or statements? Or do you allow your genuine emotions to dictate your input to the conversation? Repetition can be a sign that someone wishes to pull the wool over your eyes.

6) Overexplaining: Overexplaining reveals a different approach to lying than vagueness. If a person who's lying starts to fear their lying is blatant, they will often try to build up their story by overexplaining. By adding plenty of reasonable-sounding details and continuing to vie for your affirmation, they may be trying to divert your attention from the underlying truth.

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