8 Honest Truths About Spotting Liars and Lying

Woman with a growing nose as she lied in front of a picture of wonder woman

As a provider of online focus groups, our team occasionally has the pleasure of observing market researchers perform qualitative mining on respondents. These sage researchers may not have a truth serum, but they come close in deciphering the intimate intentions of people during studies.

To be honest, it’s crucial these days that all of us take measures to separate truth from dishonesty in our daily lives. After all, it’s estimated that on any given day we’re lied to from 10 to 200 times. Furthermore, according University of Massachusetts psychologist Robert Feldman, 60% of people lie during a standard 10-minute conversation and average two to three lies during that time frame.

You heard it right. We are swimming upstream in lies during the flow of the day! Is there anything to do about it?

Machines are already doing it and doing it well. As qSample reported in our eye-tracking article, based on a University of Buffalo’s Center for Unified Biometrics and Sensors:

In their study of 40 videotaped conversations, an automated system analyzing eye movements correctly identified whether subjects were lying or telling the truth 82.5 percent of the time. That’s a better accuracy rate than expert human interrogators typically achieve in lie-detection judgment experiments. (Experienced interrogators average closer to 65 percent.)

The study employed an automated system that focused wholly on eye movement.

You don’t have to wait for the rise of the machines, though, or winning the lottery to afford eye-tracking technology. You can begin training yourself to pierce falsehoods by simply beginning to understand certain foundational truths about spotting liars and lying.

In a recent Business Insider article on how to detect liars, Paul Ekman provides these insights on truth-telling. Ekman’s is renowned for his scientific work on lying. His research was the basis for the television series Lie to Me. He was also a consultant for the Pixar hit Inside Out and worked for Homeland Security.


The 8 Truths About Liars and Lying


1. Everyone lies – Not surprising. In fact, studies have shown that even babies learn to lie at an early age, using such tactics such as “fake crying and pretend laughing” to win attention from parents. When it comes to adults, Ekman states that most humans are involved in what is called “low stake lies.” These include politeness, flattery or simply avoiding verbal injury upon others. Low stake lies essentially keep society together.

2. Not everyone lies, though – That’s hard to believe, and many will say Ekman is lying. However, there are individuals who—when it comes to serious financial, personal or moral issues —will always “err” on the side of honesty. According to Ekman, those who are deceitful when it comes to serious issues are engaging in “high stake” Some people mercifully never employ high stake lies.

3. It’s not hard to spot lying from behavior – Ekman always looks for “hot spots,” those signs that people aren’t divulging the whole story. He claims there are 30. The two most important ones are micro facial expressions and gestural slips. One illustration of a gestural slip is a slight shrug, usually of one shoulder, coinciding with a verbal declaration of confidence; another one is a small head shake no, only very slight, when saying “yes.”

4. Women are not better are spotting lies – Everyone has trouble spotting high stake In many cases, people simply would rather go into denial than accept someone close to them is being deceitful. That certainly affects mothers and wives as much as it affects fathers and husbands. Facing the truth is painful when it comes to liars who are close to us.

5. Psychopaths are not the best liars – We can thank Hollywood for the trope of the silky sicko spinning a web of lies. Psychopaths follow the same rules are everyone else. The difference, in most instances, is that they tend to blind others with their charm.

6. Looking up and to the left is not a sign of lying – We discussed this in our article on eye-tracking, and Ekman supports the fact that sight direction is unrelated to honesty (unless you’re employing expensive video and algorithms on your side, as with the University of Buffalo). Guess we can dismiss any notions of spotting lies in David Caruso…

7. Micro facial expressions are not proof of dishonesty – Individuals often aren’t concealing the truth but simply concealing underlying emotions (like an innocent person being fearful because he or she is suspected of lying). According to Ekman, the key is to find out why a person is concealing their emotions in the first place, as to assess whether it’s a sign of guilt of the offense being investigated.

8. The polygraph is not reliable – That is common knowledge, but many cling stubbornly to this chestnut. Ekman explains there is no silver bullet when it comes to lying. That would have to include eye-tracking technology. The polygraph is slightly better at lie-detecting than mere chance and it has its uses in criminal investigations (as in giving investigators a starting point on whom to investigate).

For the perfect lie detector tool, we’ll have to wait until someone creates the Lasso of Truth used by Wonder Woman (in fact, the creator of this superhero, William Mouton Marston, was the inventor of the first machine-powered lie detector).


Actionable Tips for Spotting Liars and Lying


This list will not land you in one of the focus group research teams qSample works with…or a job with the FBI for that matter. They are simply sensible starting to points to at least dispel stubborn myths on lying. As the Business Insider article proffers, if you want to go further in recognizing lies you can take some of Ekman’s self-training courses on reading facial expressions.

For assistance, you can furthermore watch this outstanding TED Talk with Pamela Meyer, author of Liespotting.

As a complement of Meyer’s research, Feldman offers some bodily signs indicating you’re being lied to:

Covering of the mouth
Too much repetition or too much detail
Body preparing for an escape (feet pointing to the nearest exit is a classic one)
Words and body language don’t match
Change in breathing during a conversation
Eye movement changes from normal pattern
Aggressive behavior appearing during a conversation for no apparent reason

It’s important to note that these bodily signs, alone or in combination, are by no means concrete proof of dishonesty. Feldman, Meyer and Ekman all agree it’s a matter of awareness and practice in detecting clusters of these bodily signs that point to a lie.

In the end, these researchers contend lying is a two-way street, a cooperative act—whether it’s seeing advertisements on the television or talking to a silver-tongued coworker. Someone who is lying wants something from you (even if it’s not having his or her feelings hurt). How much power you will give them is a matter of how aware you want to be in the relationship. Unfortunately, too many individuals want to descend into denial simply to go about their busy days.

And perhaps hoping eye-tracking technology or Wonder Woman will appear at their doorsteps.

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