Can you spot when people are lying to you? If the answer is no, you might be suffering from what psychologists call truth bias – the assumption that most people tell the truth most of the time.
Most people think other people are telling the truth more often than they actually are. This is known as truth bias.
This bias, which is purely unconscious, is partly because the majority of people do tell the truth – at least most of the time. In the absence of any evidence to the contrary, it’s logical to assume that another person is telling the truth because the odds are that is more likely. After all, why would they lie to us?
But people have different reasons for lying that are many and varied. A lot also depends on the severity of the lie – from wriggling out of going for a drink with a friend, to lying about a criminal offence, or lying for personal gain – there is always some advantage to the liar. People lie because lying can be a better way, or a short cut, to getting what they want. Sometimes ‘little white lies’ means that we can get children to behave better or customers to buy one item rather than another, and lying can persuade populations to agree to go to war.
Lying works better when the risk of getting caught is low. Research has shown that people tend to weigh up the risks of getting caught before deciding to lie. It’s because most people tend to lie only when they feel they are unlikely to get caught that lies are difficult to detect.
Most people like to think only other people lie and they they never lie themselves – even though deep down they know damn well that they do. The truth of the matter is that we all lie – even if we only do it once in a blue moon (which of course is another lie!)
Dr. Chris Street, a researcher and Senior Lecturer in Investigative Psychology at the University of Huddersfield, has studied the cognition of social conflict. He believes the reason most people are so bad at spotting a liar is because liars are skilled at covering up their lies.
Lies are much easier to spot if you have hard evidence that firmly contradicts the information you’re being fed. Hard facts rather than say-so give clues to whether or not a person is telling lies and are likely to continue telling lies. In other words, any contradiction gives an indication of their trustworthiness.
Interrogators, police officers and tax inspectors often start by asking questions they already know the answers to, but at some stage they start asking questions they don’t know the answers to. Police often withhold information from suspects to accurately gauge the degree to which they are lying, or are likely to lie.
However, the only real way to tell if someone is lying is to ask questions and look for inconsistencies that contradict known facts. Even without those facts you should stop yourself simply assuming people are telling the truth. If in any doubt, it’s safer to keep an open mind. It’s a hard fact, but most of the time, trying to spot whether someone is lying is going to rely on guesswork.
Liar liar… Tell tale signs:
Telling a lie is a complex process. The brain has first to identify a truth and then suppress it before it can invent the lie and put it into words. This often leads to a longer pause than before a normal, direct and open response. Verbal camouflage is employed – words and phrases such as ‘well… er… why? How do you mean… why are you asking me that?’ etc. are dead giveaways.
Some body language experts and NLP enthusiasts claim that when we look up to our left, we’re accessing recalled memory and when we look up to our right we are thinking creatively. This is not an accurate or realistic test because the direction of eye movements may depend on factors that cannot be known, such as left/right brain dominance, whether the individual is left or right-handed, or even learned behaviour.
However, people who are lying will often avert their gaze, looking in any direction other than at the interviewer.
Lying is stressful and it activates some of the mechanisms of fight or flight. The mouth goes dry, the body begins to perspire, the pulse rate increases and the breathing rate changes, leading to shorter, shallower breaths. All these physiological symptoms are tell tale signs but not necessarily evidence that a person is telling lies – the room may too hot, or an individual may have been presented with some horrific evidence.
A liar will often over-perform – both speaking and gesticulating too much in a bid to be more convincing. These over the top body language rituals – just like amateur theatrics – can involve too much eye contact (often without blinking!) and over-emphatic gesticulation.
All human beings are different and some people naturally prefer to keep a poker face even when they’re not telling lies. But some go beyond the poker face and shut down their body language completely. What is needed is a record of benchmark behaviour – in other words, how does this person normally behave?
Liars often prefer to hide their faces. They do this by covering their mouth or putting their hand to their foreheads – especially when finding themselves in a hole. Lying is not only stressful, it’s uncomfortable, and the body will sometimes compensate for this with ‘comfort-touching.’ This can take the form of rocking (in extreme cases) or stroking or playing with parts of the body such as the hair (or clothing) or twiddling wedding rings.
Fleeting gestures – including facial expressions – can also be a giveaway. They are difficult to spot but body language experts often film interviews and closely examine the footage later, slowing it down and zooming in, as the try to identify discomfort due to performed lies. The best way to spot these without the assistance of a camera is to observe the facial expression when the person has finished speaking. If someone momentarily pulls a face or rolls their eyes, this can also be a sign they have told a lie, but not always – there could be a hundred reasons why this happens.
Liars really struggle to control their hands and feet when they lie. If the gestures don’t match the words (this is known as incongruent gesticulation) it’s probably the hands and feet that are telling the truth!
Research from the Social Conflict Lab.
This article was originally published on The Conversation.