How to Tell If Someone Is Lying

According to eminent psychologist and emotion researcher Dr. Paul Ekman, lying comes in two flavors. First are “low stakes lies,” which almost all of us engage in; these are lies like, “Oh no, I never got your message,” or “So sorry I’ll be out today—it must have been something I ate.”

By contrast, “high stakes lies”—”I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” or “I’m not in love with David Patraeus”—are, thankfully, less common.

Either way, can you handle the truthiness?  Research says probably not: we’re terrible at detecting lies.  Even technology doesn’t improve our chances—a 2009 study in the Journal of Forensic Sciences examined a technique called voice stress analysis and found that it worked about as well as … you guessed it: guessing.

And to make things worse, a 2014 study found that emotionally intelligent individuals (read: anyone who listens to psychology podcasts) are more easily duped by liars.

That’s not to say we can’t improve our chances. While there is no single, silver bullet method to recognize deception, there are two different ways that lies leak from a liar like sweat on a brow.

The first set of cues are physiological: gestures, facial expressions, or other ways liars wear their lie on their sleeve. In the following three examples, the key is to watch rather than listen.

Sign #1: Duping delight.  There’s a common myth that something called microexpressions are proof of lying. Microexpressions are fleeting, split-second facial expressions that reveal a deliberately covered emotion. However, suppressing an emotion doesn’t necessarily mean a lie—you might cover anxiety to play it cool in an awkward situation, suppress shock to keep your poker face, or tamp down anger at your boss, all without an outright fib.

That said, with an actual lie, you may see a microexpression called duping delight, which is a smile or excited fidgeting that results from anticipation of a successful lie. Feeling like he or she got away with it gives the liar a thrill of pleasure, so next time you think you’re hearing a tall tale, be on the lookout for a telltale half-suppressed smile at the end.

Sign #2: Another sign is gaze aversion, or the breaking off of eye contact. Most liars know that lying is wrong, so reducing eye contact reduces the guilt of lying to your face. In addition, lying generally takes a lot of cognitive and emotional energy, so simultaneously holding eye contact can overload a liar and cause him or her to look away.

Sign #3: The third cue to watch for is non-congruent gestures. The words are lies, but the body tells the truth.  For example: couple strongly confident words “I swear I put the check in the mail on Tuesday” with a shrug of the shoulders, and you know you’ll have to wait for your money.  In another example, pair an affirmative statement—”Of course I’ll cooperate with the investigation”—with a subtle “no” shake of the head, and you have reason to suspect a whopper.

Once your eyes suspect a liar, next let your ears have a turn. Here are four cues to listen for:

Sign #4: A story in strict chronological order. When a complex lie is to be told, whether to a CIA agent, the parent of a teenager, or Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, liars often rehearse their story, which usually is spun from—logically—start to finish. A fun trick?  If you think you’re hearing a tall tale, ask to hear the story backwards: “So when you just happened to see the car in the ditch—what happened before that again?” and watch the liar squirm.

Sign #5: Way too much linguistic convolution or overcompensation. Does your suspected liar use a hundred words when ten would do?  Or use formal language with many clauses?  For example, compare these two statements: “In light of the given situation, it can categorically be stated that I have never, and would never, remove your lunch from the shared office refrigerator.”  Contrast that with “I didn’t eat your lunch.”

Sign #6: Distancing. A truth-teller names names, while a liar uses impersonal phrases or pronouns; for example, “that woman” rather than “Miss Lewinsky.” In addition, liars avoid saying “I.” For example, instead of “I didn’t skim off the register,” you’ll hear, “No one here would ever skim off the register.”

Sign #7: The used-car salesman vibe. Liars work really hard to come across as truthful. They smile at all the right moments and say all the right things. But the result often appears contrived and fake, which it is. If you feel like you’re being sold a bag of goods, you probably are. In short, a bright toothy smile probably means a shark.


Harnsberger, J.D., Hollien, H., Martin, C.A., Hollien, K.A.  (2009) Stress and Deception in Speech: Evaluating Layered Voice Analysis.  Journal of Forensic Sciences, 54, 642-650.

Baker, A., ten Brinke, L. & Porter, S. (2013).  Will get fooled again: Emotionally intelligent people are easily duped by high-stakes deceivers. Legal & Criminological Psychology, 18, 300-313.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.


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