A Guide to Lying

by Paul Cullen, Ph.D. on April 6, 2013

Lying guide

What I’m about to share with you can be used for good or evil. It is my hope that by teaching you about lying you will be in a better position to not be deceived or duped. I suspect that by the time you finish reading this article, what you thought you knew about lying and identifying liars will be seriously in question.

The Premise That Identifying Liars is Based Upon

The basic premise is that liars experience greater fear and anxiety than people telling the truth. Based on this premise we’ve been told lies can be betrayed by such ‘tells’ as: people touching their faces, breaking eye contact or unusual eye contact, long pauses, repeating questions before answering them, unprovoked defensiveness or changing the subject. It seems like a solid theory, but according to the US National Research Council there is no scientific evidence to suggest that fear and anxiety necessarily would be higher in liars verses truth tellers. The premise that the majority of lie detection is based upon is wrong.

Verbal and Nonverbal Cues

Still unconvinced? A meta analysis (a study combining several research studies) was conducted that included 5 different studies and assessed 50 verbal and nonverbal cues suspected to be related to deception. The results showed that few had any correlation to lying and those that did had only a weak relationship, making them useless for accurately identifying lying. A second meta analysis assessing verbal and nonverbal cues showed that they had a 54% accuracy, slightly over what you’d get from flipping a coin. This means verbal and nonverbal cues are next to useless for identifying a lie. Let’s take a look at a video compilation of poor old Lance Armstrong as he vehemently denies doping in several different interviews.

Could you tell he was lying? In January this year he came out on Opera and revealed his extensive use of performance enhancing drugs including testosterone, growth hormone and EPO.

What About Those Lie Detecting Wizards Like Your Mum?

Are there some people that are naturally better at detecting lies? A study was conducted that tested 12,000 people and 29 people were identified who were slightly better at identifying liars. The accuracy of such lie detecting wizards is only about 4.3% better than average and none of them seem to be using similar strategies to each other. Surely you can train people to become expert lie detectors! According to research, it turns out that professional lie catchers are much more confident in their judgements, but no more accurate than a lay person.

What If Your Life Depended On It?

One theory is that when the stakes are high such as going to prison, receiving a death sentence, or being caught out cheating on your partner, that the consequent high emotions of the liar means they’ll be more easily identified by their behaviour. The problem with this is that high-stakes affect truth tellers’ behaviour in a similar way. Studies on lying when the stakes are high claim that lies can be more accurately identified when these conditions are met, but these studies have been poorly conducted making their data of little value.

Surely Lie Detecting Polygraphs Can Distinguish Liars from Non Liars

An article published in a peer reviewed academic journal came to the conclusion that after 50 years of lie detector research there is no scientific evidence that lie detectors actually work. Not surprisingly the lie detector manufacturer Nemesysco, with vested financial interest, tried to sue the journal and the article was removed from its online database. They also threatened the authors with legal action if they wrote anything on the subject again. By my logic, if polygraphs do in fact work, why would the manufacturer go to such lengths to block the publication of an article that they considered to be incorrect, rather than provide scientific evidence refuting the claims?

The principle on which polygraphs rely is that guilty persons show a heightened level of anxiety during key parts of the test because they believe their deceit will be detected. Therefore you have to believe lie detectors work to be caught out by one.

But I’ve Seen It Done On TV

As Oscar Wilde said, “Life imitates art far more that art imitates life.” It might very well be that seeing people caught out on screen by expert lie detectors in police interrogations or by polygraph tests leads us to believe these approaches work and therefore betrays our secrets under similar circumstances. The most common interview technique taught to hundreds of thousands of law enforcement personnel is the Behavioural Analysis Interview (BAI). It is primarily used to make an assessment of whether a suspect warrants further interrogation. It involves asking 15 standard behaviour-provoking questions and looking for leg crossing, shifting in chairs, grooming and lack of eye contact (if you want to know the questions contact me and maybe a lawyer), the assumption being that guilty suspects or liars will show more of these behaviours. However, all studies published to date show this approach to be largely ineffective in increasing the ability to detect liars.

If any of you have watched the TV series Lie to Me you would have seen the crack hotshot Dr Cal Lightman (played by Tim Roth) interpret microexpressions (that are rapidly suppressed) to betray a liar and to find the truth. This is a real phenomena that has been studied, but surprise surprise the approach doesn’t work. This is because such microexpressions occur infrequently and are displayed by non liars too.

Lie to me TV series

Just so you know those voice stress analysers in the movies and which you can buy over the internet don’t work either.

Getting to the Truth (Self-defence Against Lying)

Using the current available knowledge and instruments it is not possible to identify liars with any reasonable degree of accuracy. There are, however, a few techniques which increase the accuracy slightly. These techniques are based on the theory and evidence that lying is cognitively more difficult. By raising the cognitive load (making the mind work harder) of the suspected liar it becomes easer to identify whether someone is lying. One way to increase cognitive load is to ask people to tell their story in reverse order. In one study, people were able to identify liars when the liars were asked to tell their story in reverse with 60% accuracy verses 42% when they told their story beginning to end. Another way to increase cognitive load is to add an additional task by asking the suspect to maintain eye contact whilst telling their story. And still another way to increase cognitive load is to get the suspected liar to provide more and more details by being supportive and encouraging. In this scenario the liar betrays themselves as the additional information becomes less detailed and less plausible.

Lying and Lie Detection in the Real World

As objective as we like to think we are, the truth is that people hear and believe what they want to believe. We tend to remain unswayed until we’ve seen evidence to the contrary with our own eyes. Below is a clip from the 1967 sex farce, “A Guide for the Married Man”, directed by Gene Kelly and starring Walter Matthau. In the video clip the husband explicitly denies having an affair. The wife catches him in the act and he continues to deny it, not even acknowledging the presence of the other woman currently in the same room. His wife is left wondering whether she actually saw what she saw. This isn’t all too far from the truth. Think of Bill Clinton and Lance Armstrong again, most of us didn’t believe it until we heard it from the horses mouth.

An effective liar is a person who truly believes that others cannot tell he is lying. He will also employ the “deny, deny, deny” principle to capitalise on other people’s vulnerability to believing what they want to believe. Such a liar will not be betrayed by verbal or nonverbal signals or by police interviewers or polygraph machinery.

The best defence against being lied to and deceived is to realise that there is no accurate way to tell that someone is lying based on their behaviour when you question them. This means employing some healthy skepticism and objectively examining the facts of the situation rather than being influenced by what you’d rather believe. If you’re really in a pinch you could also try increasing the cognitive load on the person by asking more and more questions, insisting on continuous eye contact or getting them to tell you their story in reverse order.

The team at Paul the Counsellor provides counselling and psychotherapy to individuals and couples in the Melbourne CBD.

Have you ever been unexpectedly duped or gotten away with a big lie? Please share your experiences in the comment section below.

0458 090 687
253 Lonsdale St, Melbourne VIC 3000

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Ian Tomlinson May 13, 2013 at 2:29 AM

Hi Paul, this is a really interesting blog post – lying is a tool I guess we all use to an certain extent. Detecting when people are lying to us can be difficult but I think that listening to your gut instinct is the best way to do this. Maybe the best way to avoid having to deal with lies is to hang around people you trust.


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