Monday, October 8, 2012

The Mechanics of Lying

“The results have been remarkably consistent. When it comes to lie detection, the public might as well simply toss a coin. It doesn’t matter whether you are male or female, young or old, few people are able to detect deception with any degree of reliability.”
          Quirkology, Richard Wiseman

I’ve never accepted---nay, I’ve resented the common sense understanding that “Liars can be spotted by their lack of eye contact or their nervous body language, mannerisms and/or posture”.  While I don’t want to make this into a case of “I knew it all along” I have to say in this particular area, I’ve always questioned this notion. Thankfully, the studies reveal that body language and lack of eye contact are NOT strategies that a typical liar will resort to or employ subconsciously.

In his book Quirkology, author Richard Wiseman highlights a study conducted by Psychologist Charles Bond.  Bond wanted to find out why so many people tend to inaccurately predict when someone is lying by determining what the typical person thinks of as the best strategy of how to detect a lie.  So, what does the average person think of as the best way to “detect lies”?

“He asked thousands of people from more than sixty countries to describe how they go about telling whether someone is lying. People’s answers are remarkably consistent. From Algeria to Argentina, Germany to Ghana, Pakistan to Paraguay, almost everyone thinks that liars tend to avert their eyes, nervously wave their hands around and shift about in their seats.”

In fact, when examining the liars in the study, it was found“…liars are just as likely to look you in the eye as truth-tellers, they don’t move their hands around nervously and they don’t shift in their seats (if anything, they are a little more static than truth-tellers).”

Bond’s conclusion is that most people are unable to distinguish lies from truths because they base their criteria for duplicity on behaviors that are not associated with real deception.

How, then, does one spot a liar? Bond suggests that there is actually a language of lying.  Anyone can control their body language and their quantity of eye contact; what is more difficult to control Bond says, is “the words we use and how we use them.”

“Liars often distance themselves psychologically from their falsehoods, and so they tend to include FEWER references to themselves and their feelings and their stories."

Lies tend to be SHORTER and LESS DETAILED than truths. If you are lying, you are more likely to incriminate yourself if you add too many details and speak on and on about your story.  While liars tend to speak BRIEFLY and are less detailed in their descriptions, they do tend to memorize certain necessary (non-random) details to maintain their lies—details that non-liars wouldn’t bother memorizing.
"The most reliable signs of lying are in people’s voices and in their unconscious choices of language: THE LACK OF KEY DETAILS in their descriptions, the increase in pauses and hesitations and avoiding the use of the word “I."

Cognitive Load?

Another interesting facet of lying involves the nature of cognitive load.  In the book “The Folly of Fools” author Robert Trivers posits that cognitive load is the most important variable playing a role in deception.  

What is meant by cognitive load?  In the activity of lying, the brain must consciously attend to many important operations at once.  This takes a considerable amount of effort. Think about it, to lie successfully you must be able to suggest a plausible alternative to the actual truth, speak in a tone and manner that convinces the other person, remember certain important details of your story as it unfolds, say things that do not contradict information that the listener is aware of and you must have your story memorized to recall when the need arises.

What about blinking and nervousness?

Triver’s mentions another study regarding blinking and its response to cognitive load when one is deceiving another: “Recent studies of deception suggest that we blink less when we are deceiving—cognitive load rules.  Also, contrary to usual expectation, people fidget less in deceptive situations. While someone is nervous they will fidget more, but cognitive load has the opposite effect. ”

 In other words, since the brain has so much more to attend to while lying, there is less effort put out to perform the actions of blinking and feeling nervous. Nervous energy often comes from undirected “extra energy” that one has. When you are concentrating, that extra energy is focused towards the activity at hand (i.e. lying) instead of transpiring into nervous behaviors.  

My personal “take-home” lesson from these books on spotting liars.

1.  Look for brevity in their response—an avoidance to elaborate on the subject being questioned about (liars would rather change the subject—people telling the truth don’t have a problem discussing the issue at hand and the more words they use won’t increase the chances of contradictions or incoherencies in their story).
 2. Look for fewer details in their descriptions
3. Look for fewer self references—liars tend to avoid the use of the word “I”
4. Look at the particular kind of language (and lack thereof), and language pattern that the person chooses most always trumps their particular body language and quantity of eye contact.
5. Liars blink LESS often while deceiving.

Books I refer to in blog post:

Book: Quirkology, 2007
Author: Richard Wiseman, PhD—Professor of Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire
Chapter: Trust Everyone but Always Cut the Cards (discussing lying)
Page: Starting at 57

Book: The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life, 2011
Author: Robert Trivers, professor of Anthropology and Biological Sciences at Rutgers University, Winner of Crafoord Prize
Chapter: The Evolutionary Logic of Self Deception
Page:  11

Also, please read “Lying” by Sam Harris. Fantastic read!


  1. This reminds me of a coversation I had with my father of body language in general. He suggested that if I studied a books on body language and/or take a psychology class that discusses that I would tell people better in things like if a woman is interested in me or soemthing. I'm not being a beleiver in such "absolutes". Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. If a woman lightly moves her hair away from her face, it does not mean she is flirting. Liars are the same way. People are varied enough that they would do different things when doing the same activites. This study makes sense on detecting lies. The idea of lying is to take the truth and choose to fake with another story of the events. So patterens can be found on this. Great post!

  2. Oh Renee I hope your not studying lying for personal reasons, ie someone is or has been lying to you. Sounds like some interesting reading though. I just usually get a gut feeling about someone. I guess I just subconsciously recognize the ques that give them away.