In your everyday life, you are likely to encounter a “Pinocchio,” or a person that tells lies. People in general tell an average of two lies a day. But, how do you spot a liar? Can you tell the difference between a lie and the truth? Many researchers have devoted their lifetime careers trying to understand these questions. However, there is no perfect answer to these questions.
When spotting a liar, you need to take both the verbal and nonverbal communication into consideration. If you know the person well, you are more likely to believe him or her. And, if you do not know them, you might be more suspicious. This is because of the truth bias that we all have with those whom we know and like. We want to believe that those we love are generally being honest with us.
Common Communication Signs to Detect Lies
When telling a lie, liars focus on controlling parts of their body, while dismissing other parts. For instance, a liar may focus much energy on making convincing facial expressions and gestures, while not paying attention to their legs or feet. Nonverbal communication includes facial expressions, body movements, and appearance. Liars want to convince their listeners that they are being sincere. However, their nonverbal communication can sometimes backfire on them. Research by DePaulo and his colleagues found the signs of those who tell lies.
The following represent the nonverbal signs that a person might be telling a lie.
- Body movements that indicate nervousness (e.g., tapping, trembling)
- Fidgeting (e.g., with self or with an object)
- Excessive gestures
- Lack of eye contact
- Frequency of eye blinking
- Facial expressions (e.g., frowns, smiling)
- Facial fidgeting (e.g., face touching, rubbing hair)
- Leg and foot movements
Verbal communication includes the loudness, pitch, tone, pace, and flow of a speaker. Liars can be spotted by the verbal communication that they use. In part, liars focus so much on telling a convincing story that they may leak hints that they are not telling the truth. DePaulo and his colleagues found that liars make common verbal signs that make them easier to detect.
Liars sometimes give away that they are lying by the following verbal signs.
- Speaking with insecurity
- Expressing vocal tension
- Saying incoherent statements
- Having a high pitch
- Saying negative complaints
- Too vocally expressive
- Hesitating (e.g., “um,” “er,” “uh,” and “hmm’)
- Speech errors
Tips for Detecting Liars
Detecting a liar is much harder than it looks. However, these few tips can increase your accuracy in spotting a liar.
1. Look for Inconsistencies
It takes a lot of effort to tell a lie. This makes it difficult for a liar to maintain consistency. If a person is smiling at you, but then their voice tone is contradictory, this might be a sign of a lie. Or, if a person is nodding his or her head with agreement, but their leg movements are inconsistent, do take note of this. A liar may sound convincing, but they may be leaking disagreement with another nonverbal sign. As a listener, pay attention to any inconsistencies or discrepancies.
2. Ask Questions
Liars use much energy in ensuring that their lie is believed by their targets. To catch them off guard, ask them a neutral question. Such as, “How is the weather?” or “How was your commute?” The person will answer comfortably and with ease by just being his or her natural self. This will help you find a baseline of their natural behavior to compare against, when the person begins to tell a lie. And, during the conversation, when you think the person is lying, ask unexpected questions and follow-up questions. For instance, “How interesting, what was your favorite part?” or “Can you provide more information on that?” This will make it easier to spot the lying behavior.
3. Look for Changes in Behaviors
When a person dramatically changes his or her behavior during a conversation, this could be a sign of deception. For example, a person may have been answering questions with much details, but then all of the sudden answers with short responses. Or, a person may have been speaking comfortably, and then begin to tense up with signs of stress. The person may also have been alert the whole time, but then might start to forget parts of their story.
4. Be Aware of Microexpressions
Microexpressions are small facial expressions that we make subconsciously. When a liar is telling a lie, look for microexpressions such as a frown, a blink of an eye, or a smirk in the mouth. These micro expressions leak out hidden emotions and feelings. According to Drs. Paul Ekman and Wallace Friesen these lightning expressions are about 25th of a second. They are difficult to see, but one can be trained through workshops and courses on detecting them during deceptive conversations.
5. Consider the Culture and Context
Also, when trying to spot a liar, consider the culture and context. Individuals from other cultures might be experiencing language and cultural barriers. And, these verbal and nonverbal communication signs would not be accurate. For instance, some individuals from Greece naturally gesture more frequently, as part of their upbringing. Also, individuals in some Asian countries may be more quiet and reserved in conversations due to valuing silence, and not because they are hesitant to speak. When considering the context, a person may be telling the truth, but may feel nervous energy due to something that happened at work. Also, people may be inconsistent and suffer from memory loss if they feel sick or have an illness.
With these tips in mind, you are now more likely to spot a liar. However, there is no perfect method for detecting lies. Even lie detecting machines are not always accurate. And, humans, only get it it right half the time, even with training. Part of the reason is that people behave so differently from each other. Some people are also very good at lying, and it is difficult to spot their lies.
DePaulo, B. M., Lindsay, J. L., Malone, B. E., Muhlenbruck, L., Charlton, K., & Cooper, H. (2003). Cues to deception. Psychology Bulletin, 129, 174-118.
Ekman, P., & Friesen, W. V. (1969). Nonverbal leakage and cues to deception. Psychiatry, 32, 1, 88-105.