How to Tell If Someone Is Lying
The average person can spot a lie only half of the time
How often are you lied to? More often than you may think, say researchers. According to Pamela Meyer, MBA, a certified fraud examiner and the author of "Liespotting," studies show people are lied to from 10 to 200 times a day.
Women and men tend to lie about different things, but neither sex tells more fibs than the other or is better at spotting liars, according to clinical psychologist Bella DePaulo, PhD, who has studied lying extensively. Women and people close to you are more likely to tell a falsehood to spare your feelings, she says, while men are more likely to lie to inflate themselves in some way.
Many fibs are small white lies, such as your new haircut is really nice or I’m a pretty good boxer myself. “White lies are (usually) the social glue that holds any group together” and keeps relationships cordial, says clinical psychologist Carol Kinsey Gorman, PhD.
But bigger lies can do real damage emotionally, socially and professionally. And even white lies can be destructive in certain cases, says Gorman, who wrote “The Truth about Lies in the Workplace: How to Spot Liars and What to Do About Them.”
“If I gloss over your ‘needs-to-improve’ areas in a performance review, I am doing you a disservice,” she says. And if your contractor lies about his education on a resume, he can put you and your company at risk of public humiliation and worse.
So it’s worthwhile learning a few of the signs of lying before entering a new relationship or hiring your next chief of finance — or babysitter.
Related: 3 Big Moving Scams To Avoid
Spotting liars harder than previously thought
Unfortunately, telling whether someone is lying can be tricky, says Gorman. While a highly trained professional can figure out if someone is lying 90 percent of the time, the average person can detect lying only half of the time, says Gorman, who studies how nonverbal behavior affects work relationships.
Add to that the halo effect — that is, attractive or charming people are (wrongly) perceived as more honest — and you’ve got some tough sleuthing to do.
New research has questioned some assumptions about signs of lying. Sociopaths who enjoy the thrill of deceiving other people, for example, may not show typical signs of nervousness while lying, experts say. The reason? They’re not nervous: Their lack of conscience makes it easy for them to lie.
Small wonder that normal people who are lying are much easier to catch. Gorman says studies suggest it’s most effective to look for a cluster of four or more behaviors that tend to unmask a lie.
When to suspect someone is lying
Most signs of lying occur because the liar is feeling stressed and her heart and breathing rate rises, causing tics or other physical giveaways, according to Gorman. While no suspicious behaviors guarantee someone is lying, seeing a cluster means you “might want to ask tougher questions,” she says. Keep an eye out for these signs:
- A fake smile, one that involves only the mouth and not the eyes
- Foot jiggling, as well as kicking or wrapping and unwrapping feet around chair legs or someone’s own legs
- Dilated pupils. These occur when most people are lying because they are concentrating hard and hyperstimulated.
- Gestures that seem unnatural or feel like slips. While fidgeting and rubbing ones hands can indicate lying in someone unused to it, a seasoned liar may hold herself unusually still to compensate for nervous movement. A slight head shake “no” while saying “yes” is an example of an incongruous slip.
- Touching the face, especially the nose. Gorman says that nose touching may increase just before telling a fib may be because adrenaline opens capillaries and can cause itching.
- Tiny flashes of emotion — called microexpressions — that don’t seem to fit what is being communicated verbally. For example, a look of contempt (the only asymmetrical microexpression) shows up as a slight momentary curl in and up on one side of the lip. If you notice what looks like a fleeting sneer when someone is saying they’d love to work for you, look for other signs of falsehood. (For some examples of microexpressions, check out Pamela Meyer’s TED talk on lying.)
- Speaking in a convoluted or oddly formal way. Gorman likes to use Bill Clinton’s famous lie as an example of the way that someone telling a lie can become more formal (“I did not have sex with that woman” instead of “I didn’t have sex with her”). Fibbers also pad their speech with irrelevant but impressive sounding details, as demonstrated in this TED talk by educator Noah Zandan.
- Blinking. Neuroscience has tweaked the common wisdom that someone blinks while telling a lie. While a person who is lying does start to blink fast, it doesn’t happen until she finishes the lie. During the time leading up to the lie and telling it, her blink rate actually slows down.
- Clipped or too-long response times. If you catch a liar off guard with a question, it can take him longer than usual to respond. But offering up too much information before a question is fully asked also suggests someone is lying.
Experts used to think refusing to meet someone’s eye was suspicious, but studies have since found compulsive liars may look directly in your eyes while telling a whopper to be more convincing.
Psychologist Paul Ekman, PhD, who pioneered a study of facial expressions in the 1970s, also offers a training tool that many managers have found helpful in learning to read emotions while hiring people.
If you yourself have a problem with habitual lying and want to stop, Ekman recommends this group.
Related: How To Tell If A Charity Is Legit