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How to Recognize the Signs That Someone Is Lying

By Mia Belle Frothingham, published Nov 23, 2021


Humans cannot help it. Deception and lying are common behaviors in people, and we will possess the ability to lie. One would be lying to say one has never lied before.

In fact, studies have suggested that, on average, Americans tell one or two lies every day. The true reality is that most people will likely lie from time to time. Some of these lies are small ones; these are labeled white lies and are usually intended to protect someone's feelings ("That dress looks great on you!").

Or in other cases, lies can be much more severe such as lying on a resume, or even more sinister as covering up a crime. What is worst is that people are surprisingly bad at detecting lies.

Lying Can Be Hard to Detect

One study found that people could only accurately depict lying in a laboratory setting 54% of the time. It is not impressive when one factors in a 50% detection rate by pure chance alone.

Indeed, the behavioral differences between lying and honest individuals are challenging to measure and discriminate.

Researchers have tried to uncover new ways in which we can detect lies. While there is no simple solution or an easy, tell-tale sign that someone is being dishonest, researchers and experts have found some helpful indicators of lying.

There are no signs of lying per se, but rather signs of thinking too much when a reply should not require thought, or of emotions that don't fit what is being spoken, he says.

There is one thing we must make clear, though. Like many things, spotting a lie most of the time often comes down to trusting your instincts. By knowing what signs might accurately detect a lie and learning how to take into account your gut reactions, you will become better at spotting deception.

In fact, Dr. Leanne ten Brinke, a forensic psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, suggests that our instincts for judging liars are quite strong.

Signs of Lying

The crucial component in identifying a lie is establishing a baseline for how someone acts when being truthful. An example would include watching how the person responds to basic questions with straightforward answers like "What is your name" and "Where are you from?"

Pay attention to their eyes, watch where they go. Notice how their voice sounds and look at their body language. Once you have established a baseline, and want to spot a lie, look for shifts in behavior.

Spotting the sneaks can be tough. Polygraph tests, so-called "lie detectors", are typically based on detecting autonomic reactions and are considered unreliable. That's why psychologists have been cataloging clues to deception such as facial expressions, body language and linguistics, to help hook the dishonest.

It is essential to understand that these signs are not foolproof, sometimes if someone is nervous, their voice may crack, but that does not mean they are lying.

Or if someone is uncomfortable in their chair, they will probably fidget. Just keep this in mind.

Facial Cues

Eyes

You might have heard this tactic before. Someone who is lying might either stare or look away at a crucial moment. People sometimes look away when lying; this cue could indicate that they are moving their eyes around as to try to think about what to say next.

But staring is also just as important as a cue of lying. The same study mentioned earlier, done by the University of Michigan in 2015, also found that people who lied were more likely to stare at the other individual than those who were honest.

In fact, 70% of the clips showed the people lying and staring directly at the people they lied to. Again, the baseline is a critical component when deciding what the other person's lying cues are - once you have the baseline, choosing whether or not the person is lying will become easier.

This also helps to avoid reading too much into someone's mannerisms.

Mouth

One cue of lying by omission includes rolling back the lips to the point where they have disappeared. This could indicate that the person is holding back facts or emotions.

Research has also found that people who lie are more likely to purse lips when being asked sensitive questions. Pursing the lips could also indicate that someone does not feel like engaging in the conversation at hand.

It is an instinctive reflex, meaning one does not want to speak. One might also notice a liar automatically putting their hands on their mouth and lips.

When you’re not telling the truth, you instinctively want to cover up the source of the lie — your mouth — so no one can see you’re fibbing. But that’s too obvious, so people disguise it by scratching their nose as it does the same job, but gives your hand an alibi for being over your mouth.

Complexion

Have you ever noticed a time where someone became really pale when starting to speak? The saying "white as a ghost" could be a sign of untruthfulness, where the blood starts rushing out of the face. One might also notice a liar automatically putting their hands on their mouth and lips.

This could mean they are not revealing everything, and they prefer not to tell the truth - a literal way of closing off communication.

Sweaty/Dryness

As we have mentioned before, the autonomic nervous system becomes triggered when a person is lying. This can cause liars to sweat in the T-area of the face - forehead, upper lip, around the mouth, and chin.

Or experience dryness in the mouth and eyes where the person finds themselves excessively squinting or blinking, biting or licking their lips, and swallowing hard.

Voice

When people are nervous, the muscles located in and around the vocal cords tighten up, which is an instinctive stress response. This can lead to the voice sounding high-pitched. You might also notice creaks and cracks in the liar's voice.

Therefore, clearing of the throat is a sign to cope with the discomfort of the tightened muscles, which can signal dishonesty. Also, you might notice a sudden change in volume.

People who are telling lies tend to raise their voices. Sometimes liars will get louder when the other gets defensive.

Content

Pay attention to what they are saying. Phrases like 'honestly,' or 'I want to be honest with you' or 'here's the truth' can all be signs that the liar is trying too hard to convince the other person that they are telling the truth.

Even using buffer words such as 'like' and 'um' can indicate lying. The same research from the University of Michigan found that speaking with more vocal fill could mean deception; people tend to use these words more when they are trying to buy time to figure out what to say next.

Also, when someone goes on and on, providing too much information and information that was not requested with an excess of detail, there is a high probability that they are not telling the truth.

Liars tend to talk a lot, hoping to let others believe them with their seeming openness and sociability. Lastly, people are not perfect, and most of us are not natural-born liars.

So, sometimes, we let the truth out without thinking. Try to notice the person interrupting themselves as they talk, quickly covering up the fact with a lie.

For example, "I lost my phone - wait, I meant to say my phone was stolen" or "I was eating dinner with - oh actually, I was working late."

Body Cues

Facial expressions aren't the only clue. Because deception is a social act involving language, researchers are also studying liars' verbal communication and body cues to find distinctive patterns.

Hands

Liars tend to use exaggerated gestures with their hands after they speak, instead of during or before a conversation.

The liar's mind is working hard and doing too many things to make up a narrative, analyzing your reaction as to whether or not you believe them, and then adding to the story accordingly.

A study conducted at the University of Michigan in 2015 examined 120 media clips of high-stakes court cases to dig deeper into how people behave when they are lying versus when they are telling the truth.

Researchers found that the people who lie were more likely to gesture using both of their hands than those who were telling the truth. The results indicated that people gestured with both hands in 40% of the lying videos, compared to 25% in the honest clips.

Also, when people are lying, they tend to face their palms away from you. It is an unconscious signal indicating that they are holding back information, emotions, or even telling a lie.

Watch if their hands move to inside their pockets, or they slide them under the table - anywhere out of your sight.

Fidgeting

Shuffling the feet, rocking the body back and forth, and moving the head to the side can also be signs of deception.

When people are nervous and are telling lies, there are fluctuations in the autonomic nervous system (the ANS regulates bodily functions).

These fluctuations in the nervous system can prompt people to feel tingles or itches on their bodies, resulting in more fidgeting and scratching. People tend to display "grooming" behaviors like playing with their hair or touching their neck while being dishonest.

Verbal Cues

Liars take longer to start answering questions than truth-tellers--but when they have time to plan, liars actually start their answers more quickly than truth-tellers.

Liars answers sound more discrepant and ambivalent, the structure of their stories is less logical, and their stories sound less plausible. Liars are more likely to repeat words and phrases.

At the University of Texas at Austin, psychology professor James Pennebaker, PhD, and his associates have developed computer software, known as Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC), that analyzes written content and can, with some accuracy, predict whether someone is lying.

Pennebaker says deception appears to carry three primary written markers:

  • First-person pronouns: Liars avoid statements of ownership, distance themselves from their stories and avoid taking responsibility for their behavior, he says.
  • More negative emotion words, such as hate, worthless and sad: Liars, notes Pennebaker, are generally more anxious and sometimes feel guilty.
  • Fewer exclusionary words, such as except, but or nor--words that indicate that writers distinguish what they did from what they did not do. Liars seem to have a problem with this complexity, and it shows in their writing.

Tips for Identifying Lying

If you suspect that someone might not be telling the truth, there are a few strategies you can use that might help distinguish fact from fiction.

Ask Them to Tell Their Story in Reverse

As lie detection can be viewed as a passive process, people assume that observing the potential liar's body language and facial cues can help one spot obvious tell-tale signs.

But by taking a more active approach in uncovering lies, one can yield better and more reliable results. Research has suggested that asking a possible liar to report their story in the reverse order, rather than chronologically, can increase lie detection accuracy.

Non-verbal and verbal cues that differentiate between lying and honest can become more apparent as the cognitive load of the liar increases. Lying is more mentally taxing than honesty.

Therefore, the liar's behavioral cues may become more apparent if you add even more cognitive complexity. Not only is telling a lie more cognitively demanding, but liars also tend to exert more mental energy monitoring and evaluating the responses and behaviors of the people they are lying to (to sell their lie effectively).

Liars are concerned with credibility and making sure that other people undoubtedly believe their stories. Hence, all of this takes a considerable amount of effort, and adding a difficult task - like telling a story backward - would reveal cracks in their story, and one is more likely to know whether they are lying or not.

In one controlled study, eighty mock suspects either described the truth or lied about a made-up event. Some individuals were told to report their stories in chronological order, and others were asked to tell their stories in reverse order.

Researchers found that the reverse order interviews revealed more behavioral cues that indicate deception.

Trust the Instinctive Reaction

All in all, one's immediate gut reaction might be more accurate than a conscious lie detection. But if our gut reactions might be more accurate, why are humans generally bad at identifying dishonesty?

Most times, conscious responses might interfere with our automatic associations. Instead of relying on their instincts, people tend to focus on stereotypical behaviors associated with lying - fidgeting, and lack of eye contact.

Overemphasizing behaviors to predict deception unreliably makes it challenging to spot a lie.

Conclusion

While there is no universal, sure sign that indicates someone is lying, there are three key things one must apply to help spot a lie:

  1. Create a baseline
  2. Add to cognitive load
  3. Trust your instinct

Remember that all of the signs, behaviors, and indicators that research has linked to deception are simply clues that might reveal whether or not a person is being forthright.

If you have tried to spot a lie before, next time, try to gauge the integrity of a person's story, maybe stop looking at the stereotypical lying signs and learn how to spot more subtle behaviors - this could give you actual proof.

And, of course, when necessary, take a more active approach by adding pressure and making the lie more mentally taxing by asking the person to say the story in reverse order.

Finally, and crucially, trust your gut. Sometimes you might have a tremendous intuitive urge that tells you a sense of honesty vs. dishonesty. Learn to heed this intuition, and you might just become an excellent lie detector.

About the Author

Mia Belle Frothingham is a Harvard undergraduate in her senior year majoring in Biology & Psychology. She is a passionate author, science communicator, and aspiring astrobiologist and astronaut with a great interest in clinical, cognitive, and behavioral psychology. Mia is the author is Our AstroLegacy (available on Amazon & Kindle) – the purpose of her book is for self-awareness in discovering one's place in the universe. She poses existential interrogations like who are you? What is human? What is real? What do we actually know? And gives answers through Astrobiology, Psychology, and Evolution.

How to reference this article:

Frothingham, M.B. (2021, Nov 23). How to Recognize the Signs That Someone Is Lying . Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/how-to-tell-if-someone-is-lying.html

APA Style References

Exner, J. E. (2002). The Rorschach: Basic foundations and principles of interpretation (Vol. 1). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Piotrowski, Z. A. (1987). Perceptanalysis: The Rorschach method fundamentally reworked, expanded and systematized. London, UK: Routledge.

Rorschach, H. (1921). Psychodiagnostik. Bern: Bircher (Hans Huber Verlag, Trans., 1942).

Weiner, I. B. (2003). Principles of Rorschach interpretation. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum.

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