Liar Liar--How to Tell When Someone Is Lying

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March 18, 2008, last updated June 23, 2012

By Sara Ott, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist


Lying.  Everyone does it at some point. Children begin lying
around age 3, according to the American Psychology
Association in a January 2008 study. No matter where they
are born or their race or education, children learn that lying
avoids consequences. And they get better with time,
improving their ability to tell plausible lies.

But, of course, some people never quite grow out of the
habit.  They become lifelong habitual liars, professors in the
fine art of deception.  

What people are prone to lying? How common is lying in
America? A 2010 study lead by Kim Serota and  Timothy
Levine from Michigan State University, Department of
Communication discovered a startling fact: over 50% of all
lies are told by 5% of the people.  About 60% of us never
(or almost never) lie.  So, the majority of lying comes from
people among us who are what the study called "prolific
liars". They lie all the time.

Lies can be destructive, destroying trust in our marriages
and personal relationships, destroying even our life's savings
if we fall victim to the wrong lies.  Because we can be
harmed by the lies of others, in business and in our personal
lives, we all have an enduring critical need to learn how to
detect when someone is not telling the truth. "Did she lie?"
"Is he lying to my face?"  "Can I believe them?"

But even though we all have a need to tell when someone is
lying, the truth is, most of us are just not very good at it.  
Numerous studies conducted over 3 decades have revealed
that most of us can only tell when someone is lying about 50-
55% of the time.  An even money gamble. The same odds as
a flip of a coin.

So, we are babes in the woods when it comes to matching
wits against the polished skills of expert liars.  What is the
Number One tool people use to tell when they're being lied
to?  
























The answer comes from a 2006 study conducted by 91
scientists in a global initative on lie detection  published in
the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychiatry. Scientists asked
more than 2,000 people from nearly 60 countries, "How can
you tell when people are lying?"

And, it turns out that, whoever we are or whatever slice of
the world we inhabit-- whether you are a citydweller in a
skyrise apartment in Manhattan or London or a near naked
bushman in a goatskin hut in Australia-- we humans have
remarkably all arrived at the same coping tool for detecting
lying.  

We all think liars can't look us in the eye.  As the scientists
concluded" “[There are] common stereotypes about the liar,
and these should not be ignored. Liars shift their posture,
they touch and scratch themselves, liars are nervous, and
their speech is flawed. These beliefs are common across the
globe. Yet in prevalence, these stereotypes are dwarfed by
the most common belief about liars: ‘they can’t look you in
the eye’. "


"This is the most prevalent stereotype about deception in the
world," says Charles Bond of Texas Christian University in
Fort Worth, who led the research project.

But is this true?  Are shifty eyes the tell-tale mark of a liar?

The answer, sadly, is just the opposite. Studies have shown
no correlation between shifty eyes and lying.  This common
stereotype, like many others about liars --- they clear their
throats, they shift their weight --- tell you nothing about
whether a person in front of you is lying.  

Fortunately, there is a growing science behind the pursuit of
lying.  What are the true tell-tale signs of lying?

Micro-Expressions

The face has two kinds of muscles. Some of them are under
our control --- we use them when we smile, grimace, talk.
But others are not under our conscious control. These
involuntary muscles are the ones that produce what are
called "micro-expressions", movements so tiny that most of
them go undetected. Ticks are an example of a micro-
expression, as are sudden flutters of surprise, fear or
suppressed guilt.

A study by psycholgist Paul Ekman of the University of
California found that 90% of liars show 35 different micro-
expressions and other gestures when they lie.

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