8 unusual tell-tale signs that they're telling you a lie
Chances are, someone has lied to you recently without you knowing it.
Research shows that most of us are terrible at telling if someone is lying to us (1), because we have all been trained to look for body language signals that are not actually associated with lying. Yes, I know you think you know what to look for: averted eyes, a brief touch of the nose, a nervous cough. These are myths believed by people from Kenya to Kansas.
Wide and exhaustive studies, including thousands of hours spent studying video of people telling truths and lies, all indicate that someone who is lying is not more likely to avert their gaze, dabble in nervous face touching, stammer, or cover their mouths with their hands when speaking (2). Liars are just as likely to look you in the eye and sit still as non-liars.
In this piece, I want to encourage you to forget all the body language clichés - unless you're trained in spotting miniscule and rapid 'micro-expressions', but that's for another article, I suspect.
So how big a problem is lying?
Lying is unsettlingly popular
Lying is widespread. In one study carried out by the forward-thinking British psychologist Richard Wiseman, only 8% of people reported never having told a lie - and we only have their word for that (3). Other research found that most people tell about two important lies every day, that four out of every five lies remain undetected, that a third of conversations involve some form of deception, and that 60% of the population have cheated on their partners at least once (4). Sorry, I don't mean to make you feel paranoid. I'm sure you are surrounded by scrupulously honest and decent folk. But it's best to recognize that people do lie and have an idea how to genuinely spot it.
Of course, someone might mislead you without actually lying to you.
The difference between being innocently misled and lied to
By 'lie', I mean the deliberate intention to deceive you. Someone who is self-deluded, for instance, may mislead you whilst genuinely believing what they're saying. Most of us have promised something that, at the time, we really meant, only to find we just couldn't later fulfil that promise. This may feel like a lie to the person on the receiving end, but it's not the kind of lying I'm talking about here.
When I worked with acute psychotics, some might tell me they were connected to royalty or that aliens were communicating with them through the TV. I didn't believe them, but neither did I think they were lying to me - because they believed.
So you can be lied to and thereby misled or you can be misled by someone who believes they're speaking the truth. Of course, it's not always easy to distinguish the difference, but it's good to at least understand there is a difference.
What kinds of people are more likely to lie to you? Yes, I know, 'liars'. But who is more likely to be one?
Look at general behaviour
Look at the behaviour of the suspected liar in your life. Do they tend to adapt themselves to different people seamlessly? Are they excessively concerned with what others might think of them? Do their values and opinions float and morph depending on whom they're with? Some people don't lie (or very rarely) simply because they are much less concerned with what other people think.
Of course, people can be mercurial and socially adaptable and still be basically honest; but when ascertaining whether you have been lied to or not, it's always useful to think about the general behaviour of a person. To lie habitually, you need to be sensitive to the fact that:
- Other people have different perceptions and expectations than you do.
- Other people's perceptions and expectations can be influenced by what you say or do.
People who care little about what others think are actually more likely to be honest.
But how do you spot a lie in action, as it happens, in the heat of the moment? Here are a few ways that might just lead you to discover that the silky smooth words playing upon your earlobes may be a little less than totally reliable.
1) Don't accuse too soon
"Where were you last night?"
"I don't believe you!"
You are much more likely to catch someone out in a lie if you...give them a chance to lie. Let them talk. Ask them innocently what they were doing, who was there, and whether they enjoyed themselves. See how keen they are to discuss things about which you suspect they may be lying. Sit back and listen. And that's another thing...
2) Don't look. Listen!
People are better at spotting lies when they read them or listen to someone on the radio than when they watch someone on TV (5). An accomplished liar will be aware that they are expected to fidget, avert their eyes, and so on. These things can be consciously controlled. People may even be more likely to gaze directly at you whilst telling a porker.
Researchers have found that liars will tend to use fewer words when describing something about which they're lying. If you're lying, the more information you give, the more likely some of it will come back to bite you in the...near future. If someone normally tells you all and everything about stuff but suddenly is much less talkative (or just keeps repeating the same small amount of info), that could signal they speak with forked tongue.
3) Watch for personal distancing
People will tend to distance themselves from lies by referring to themselves less when they're telling them. The liar may use fewer personal pronouns like: "me, I, myself, and mine". So if someone were to lie to you that the home-knitted trousers you made them for Christmas are just the ticket, they might say something like: "Yes, they're lovely. How did you find time to make them? They'll be very useful for impressing people at important social events!" Notice that they didn't refer to themselves at all here.
Someone who genuinely likes your arty-crafty gift might say: "I really love them. I can't wait to wear them tonight at the charity ball! They really suit me." Here, the person associates themselves much more with what they are saying and also uses emotional words to express their connection to what they're telling you.
4) Watch for over-rehearsal
Most of us forget stuff. In the course of a conversation when describing something that happened, we might forget a name here, the time something happened there, who said what, and so on. This is natural.
We're more likely to be a bit vague when we're telling the truth, especially during a casual conversation. A bit of umming and arring might actually point towards someone being honest rather than lying. Most of us don't remember lots of trivial details and the more honest you are, the more likely you are to admit that you've forgotten stuff. Liars, on the other hand, suddenly develop superhuman powers of recall for unimportant information when you ask them questions about what you suspect might be a lie.
Ask yourself: does all this seem too well-prepared?
5) Watch for subject changes
It's generally more comfortable for people to tell the truth than lie. Does this person jump at the chance to change the subject so as to relieve the tension? Test for this by changing the subject suddenly and see if they seem desperate or even relieved to, instead, talk about the weather, Uncle Charlie's new lawnmower, or anything else for that matter. Switch back to the previous topic and see if they then try to veer off it again. Do they seem overly keen to talk about something else?
But remember: if you obviously disbelieve them, they might want to talk about something else because of your (to them) unjustified suspicions. So remember Tip 1.
6) Look out for defensiveness
If you habitually disbelieve someone, they may habitually feel defensive when you ask them about stuff. But if they seem overly reactive and you haven't been aggressively interrogating them or obviously disbelieving, then that might indicate they are:
- Stressed because they are lying.
- Using emotional distraction via a smokescreen to veer conversation away from the lying onto how awful you are.
7) Are you being lied to silently?
Remember that a liar can lie to you as much by what they don't tell you as by what they do. If you suspect someone is lying by omission, then ask them: "I feel as if I haven't got the whole picture here somehow..." This is good because it doesn't accuse them directly, but it gives you a further chance to see their reaction. Do they dismiss this out of hand and try to change the subject (which may indicate a guilty conscious) or do they genuinely show interest in why you would think that?
8) Give them a let out clause
If you feel the lie is about something important, then look for external validation of what they are saying. Without hiring a private eye, check, if you can, that they were with Fred last night and not with the sultry blonde from the office.
For some liars, it may be almost a relief to come clean. If you're pretty sure they are fibbing, then confront them. But rather than: "You are such a liar!", take responsibility for your own doubts: "I'm having real trouble believing this!" Then tell them exactly why you don't believe them.
They may try to reassure you or become angry because you doubt them (and both reactions could be a sign of lying or not lying). Tell them that you'd rather hear the truth because none of this makes sense to you. Resist the temptation to hurl accusations, which can be used by them to change the subject onto how you never believe them. Even if they don't admit the lie at this point, it's enough that they know you are doubtful.
So to spot a lie, you need to:
- Listen to how much they say - if they're not saying much about something, they may be lying to you.
- Listen for how much they distance themselves from what they're saying by not connecting to it with "I, me, myself, mine..." Also, do they describe how they feel about what they're discussing? - Not using feeling words may be further evidence of self-distancing.
- Notice whether they've suddenly developed a super-memory for lots of details about which you'd normally expect someone to be naturally vague.
- Notice if they seem over-eager and relieved to change the subject.
- Pay attention to whether they're overly defensive.
- Remember that not being told important stuff is still a lie.
- Confront them when you are pretty sure you are being lied to. Give them the opportunity to come clean. And remember it helps to have external evidence that what they've told you is an untruth.
Finally, don't feel bad about having been taken in by someone; as we've seen, telling if someone is lying isn't as easy as we all assume it is. When you trust someone, you give them the opportunity to behave like a reasonable human being; if they then waste that opportunity, that is a reflection of them, not you.