... and why research shows that you're better at it than you realize.
When trying to figure out whether someone is lying, what cues do you think you should use? Are there tell-tale signs through which liars give away their lies?
Think about your answer for a minute.
Most people answer this question in similar ways: For example, many think that liars avert their gaze, or completely avoid eye contact in the first place. They also think liars fidget and shift around in their seats.
The problem is, these really aren't very useful cues to deception. Liars are not very different from truth tellers in their tendencies either to look you in the eye or fidget or shift around in their seats. But these misconceptions have led to countless articles and blog posts promising to reveal what cues you really should be using to figure out when someone is lying.
Researchers have conducted studies in which they try to improve people's success at detecting deception by telling them which cues to focus on, but very little has come of this. Sometimes studies report some improvement in deception detection success, but typically not a lot. As for all those people reading media reports of the "secrets" of deception detection, they are probably still looking today, because in real life, the tips they've read about have probably been unhelpful.
There's good news and bad news: The good news is that people—everyday people, not trained professionals—are actually smarter about cues to deception than they seem to be when they are asked to name the cues they should be using.
In a massive analysis of available research reported by Maria Hartwig and Charlie Bond a few years ago, they reviewed the results of nearly 19,000 people who had participated in more than 100 studies of their judgments of whether other people were lying or telling the truth. But instead of just asking people what cues they thought they should use, the researchers who conducted these studies did something different: They showed the 19,000 people examples of people who were either lying or telling the truth, and asked them to indicate, for each example, whether the person was speaking honestly or not. The researchers also measured the ways the liars and truth tellers behaved: Did they avoid eye contact? Did they fidget or shift around in their seats? Across all the studies, dozens of behaviors were tabulated. The researchers also assessed the impressions the liars and truth tellers conveyed: Did they seem competent? Spontaneous? Ambivalent? Did their stories sound plausible?
In the end, what really mattered to the 19,000 people trying to figure out who was lying to them? For example, when a speaker averted their gaze, were people more likely to say that the person was lying? When someone refrained from fidgeting, were the 19,000 people more likely to judge that person as telling the truth?
In the ways they actually judged whether someone was lying, participants did not use the wrong cues. For the most part, in fact, they used just those cues they should have been using and ignored those that they should have ignored.
How did the authors know which cues the participants should have been using? Because of a huge review my colleagues and I published called "Cues to Deception." We combined the results of every study ever conducted of actual cues to deception—the ways liars behave that are different from the ways truth tellers behave.
As I've discussed previously, we did find that there are some real cues to deception
. There are ways liars behave that are different from how truth tellers behave. Most of those cues, however, are not very strong. For example, liars tend to speak in a higher pitched voice than truth tellers, but the difference is minimal; in some studies, it does not show up at all. There are people who may not speak in a higher pitch at all when they are lying and there are situations in which lies are not told with a higher-pitched voice than truths are. And occasionally, people speak in a higher pitch for reasons having nothing to do with lying: They may be excited about something, or they may be talking to a baby.
So here's the bad news: Even though ordinary people typically pay attention to the behaviors they should focus on when trying to figure out if others are lying—that is, they are using the right cues to deception—those cues are insufficient. If you have heard that there is no Pinocchio's nose, no behavior that always occurs when people are lying and never occurs when they are telling the truth, you have heard correctly. That's one of the truest statements ever made about the psychology of lying and detecting lies.
No matter how many articles or blog posts you read about deception, you are probably not going to get much better at knowing who is lying to you and who is telling the truth. In part, though, that's because you probably are already zeroing in on the correct cues. It's just that it's not helping you much because the cues are not all that useful.
Is there any hope for people who want to become better at detecting deception? Researchers now believe that the most promising strategy is to figure out how to get liars to give away what they know and to behave in ways that differ more clearly from how truth tellers behave. It is not enough to sit back and observe: You need to know how to steerthe interaction in ways that trip up the liars.
In forensic contexts, for example, Maria Hartwig and her colleagues found that the strategic use of evidence is important. Suspects are more likely to get caught in their lies when investigators don't reveal the evidence they already have too early in an interview.
In the future, when someone promises to reveal to you the secrets of detecting deception, feel free to roll your eyes. But if a researcher tells you what you might do to get liars to betray themselves, your chances may actually improve.
- DePaulo, B. (2010). The Hows and Whys of Lies.
- DePaulo, B.M., Lindsay, J.J., Malone, B.E., Muhlenbruck, L., Charlton, K., & Cooper, H. (2003). Cues to deception. Psychological Bulletin, 129, 74-118.
- Hartwig, M., & Bond, C. F. Jr. (2011). Why do lie-catchers fail? A lens model meta-analysis of human lie judgments. Psychological Bulletin, 137, 643-659.