Ten Ways To Tell If Someone Is Lying To You
Elisabeth Eaves, 11.03.06, 3:00 PM ET
In business, politics and romance, it would be nice to know when were being lied to. Unfortunately humans arent very good at detecting lies. Our natural tendency is to trust others, and for day-to-day, low-stakes interactions, that makes sense. We save time and energy by taking statements like I saw that movie or I like your haircut at face value.
But while it would be too much work to analyze every interaction for signs of deception, there are times when we really need to know if were getting the straight story. Maybe a crucial negotiation depends on knowing the truth, or weve been lied to and want to find out if its part of a pattern.
In fact, being able to distinguish lies from truth is important not just in our personal lives but in the economy at large. Trust lubricates virtually every transaction we undertake. In fact, trust may be worth as much as $12.4 trillion dollars a year in the United States alone, about 99.5% of GDP. (See: The Economics of Trust.) Its no stretch to argue that by reducing trust, liars make us collectively poorer.
Lies told on the printed page or on a TV screen may be the hardest to detect. When a journalist at a respected publication tells a tall tale--like the New York Times Jayson Blair or The New Republics Stephen Glass--those of us without reams of time on our hands arent likely to uncover it on our own. (See: Trusting The Media.) The same goes for deceptive campaign advertisements. Fortunately, at least in the case of politics, we can rely on nonprofit, nonpartisan organizations like Factcheck.org, to review the veracity of political claims coming from both sides of the aisle.
Face to face its easier to make our own judgments about whether someone is telling the truth. Psychologists who study deception, though, are quick to warn that there is no foolproof method. Bella DePaulo, a visiting professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, writes that lying is not a distinct psychological process with its own unique behavioral indicators. It does matter how liars feel and how they think. Indeed, many of the tell-tale signs common to liars, like fidgeting and sweating, can also be signs of ordinary anxiety. Its tough to tell the difference between a liar and an honest person who happens to be under a lot of stress.
That said, police officers and spies use a slew of interrogation tricks that the rest of us can adopt to improve our detection odds. The professionals look and listen for signs of nervousness, and pay close attention to the content of a suspects story. Does it contain a lot of detail? Does it stay consistent through repeated tellings?
Of course, there will always be those who have honed their deception skills to perfection, and theyre never easy to catch. Hardened criminals, especially ones who have been interrogated dozens of times, get better and better at lying, says 20-year New York Police Department veteran Derrick Parker. Magicians also know how to deceive by exhibiting a pleasant manner and relying on spectators assumptions. (See: In Defense of Trust.)
For most of us, though, its not magicians or criminal masterminds we need to worry about when it comes to detecting deceivers. In fact, we should be most on guard against ourselves. Often we dont want to know when somebody is lying, explains University of Massachusetts psychology professor Robert Feldman. In short, we are programmed to believe compliments and avoid painful truths, both of which make a liars task much easier.
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