catching a liar

Catching a Liar: Why is it so hard to spot a lie?

Reasons why we are not skilled at spotting lies

catching a liar

Research suggests that most people cannot tell from demeanor whether someone is lying or telling the truth. Such poor performance is not because lies are told flawlessly. Most liars make mistakes, which could be detected, but usually are missed. Both perpetuating a lie and detecting a lie, in most people, seem to be poorly developed skills. I offer six explanations for why most of us do not catch liars from demeanor.

Why People are Bad at Spotting Lies

Reason #1

My first explanation of why we may be such poor lie catchers is that we are not prepared by our evolutionary history to be either very good lie catchers or lie perpetrators. I suspect that our ancestral environment was not one in which there were many opportunities to lie and get away with it, and the costs for being caught in a lie might have been severe. If this speculation is correct, there would not have been any selection for those people who were unusually adept in catching or perpetrating lies. The fossil record does not tell us much about social life, so one must speculate about what life for hunter-gatherers might have been like. I add to that my experience – 50 years ago working in what was then a Stone Age preliterate culture in what is now called Papua New Guinea.

There was little privacy in this small village (group living, no rooms with doors, etc.) in which everyone knew and saw everyone else every day. Lies would most often be betrayed by the target or someone else observing actions, which contradicted the lie or by other physical evidence. Adultery was an activity which lying often attempted to conceal in the village where I lived. Such lies were uncovered not by reading the betrayer’s demeanor when proclaiming fidelity, but by stumbling over him or her in the bush.

In a society in which an individual’s survival depended on cooperative efforts with other members of their village, the reputational loss for being caught in a high stake lie might well be deadly. No one might cooperate with someone known to have engaged in serious lies. One could not change spouses, jobs, or villages with any ease.

To summarize my argument, our ancestral environment did not prepare us to be astute lie catchers. Those who might have been most adept in identifying and catching a liar from demeanor would have had minimal advantage in the circumstances in which our ancestors probably lived. Serious lies probably did not occur often, because a lack of privacy would have made the chances of being caught high. Such a lack of privacy would also mean that lies would typically be discovered by direct observation or other physical evidence, rather than having to rely upon judgments of demeanor. Finally, in a cooperative, closed, small society, when lies are uncovered the reputational costs to the individual would be high and inescapable.


Reason #2

In modern industrial societies, the situation is nearly the reverse. The opportunities for lying are plentiful; privacy is easy to achieve, and there are many closed doors. When caught, the social consequences need not be disastrous, for one can change jobs, change spouses, change villages. A damaged reputation need not follow you. By this reasoning, we live now in circumstances which encourage rather than discourage lying, when evidence of an activity are more easily concealed and the need to rely on demeanor to make our judgments would be greater. And we have not been prepared by our evolutionary history to be sensitive to the behavioral clues relevant to lying.

If we grant that our evolutionary history did not prepare us to detect lies from demeanor, why do we not learn how to do so in the course of growing up? One possibility is that our parents teach us not to identify their lies. Their privacy may often require that they mislead their children about just what they’re doing, when they are doing it, and why they are doing it. While sexual activity is one obvious focus of such lies, there might well be other activities which parents want to conceal from their children.


Reason #3

A third explanation is that we generally prefer not to catch liars, because a trusting rather than a suspicious stance enriches life, despite the possible costs. To always doubt, to make false accusations, is not only unpleasant for the doubter, but undermines much chance of establishing intimacy in mating, friendships, or ongoing work relationships. We cannot afford to disbelieve a friend, our child, or our spouse when they are actually telling the truth, and so we err on the side of believing the liar. Trusting others is not only required, but it makes life easier to live. It is only the paranoid who forgot such peace of mind, and those whose lives are actually at some risk if they are not constantly alert to betrayal. Consistent with this formulation, we obtained preliminary evidence that abused children living in an institutional setting were more accurate than other children in detecting lies from demeanor.


Reason #4

My fourth explanation is that we often want to be misled; we collude in the lie unwittingly because we have a stake in not knowing the truth. Consider two examples from spousal relationships. It may not be in the interest of a parent with a number of very young children to catch their mate in concealing infidelity, particularly if they are having a fling in which they are not diverting resources which would otherwise go to the children. The philanderer does not want to be caught either, so they both have an interest in the lie not being uncovered. A similar logic is at work in this next, more altruistic lie and collusive belief. A wife asked her husband, “Was there any other woman at that party whom you thought was more attractive than me?” He lies by claiming she was the most attractive when she was not. He does not want to make her jealous, and he does not want to deal with her having such feelings, and she may want to believe she was the most attractive.


Reason #5

The fifth explanation is based on Erving Goffman’s writings (1974). We are brought up to be polite in our interactions and not to steal information which is not given to us. A rather remarkable example of this is how we unwittingly avert our gaze when someone we are talking to cleans their ears or picks their nose. Goffman would also argue that the false message is sometimes made to be the more socially important message than the truth. Here’s an example: a man at work who is miserable about a fight with his wife the previous night answers, “Just fine,” when his boss asks “How are you this morning?”. In this case, that false message (that he is “just fine”) may be the one relevant to the boss’s interaction with him. It tells his boss that he is going to do his job. The true message (that he is miserable) the boss may not care to know about at all as long as he does not intend to let it impair his job performance.


Reason #6

None of the explanations I have offered so far can explain why most members of the criminal justice and intelligence communities do so poorly in identifying liars from demeanor. Police and counter-intelligence interrogators are not taking a trusting stance with their suspects, they are not colluding in being misled, and they are willing to steal information not given to them. So, why do they not do better in identifying liars from demeanor? I believe they are impeded by a high base rate and inadequate feedback. Most of the people they deal with probably are lying to them. Those with whom I have spoken to estimate the base rate of lying as more than three-fourths. Such a high base rate is not optimal for learning to be alert to the subtle behavioral clues to deceit. Their orientation, all too often, is not how to spot the liar, but how to get the evidence to nail the liar. And when they make a mistake and learn that someone was wrongfully punished, the feedback comes too late, too far removed from the mistaken judgment to be corrective. 

This suggests that if you expose people to a lower base rate of lying, around 50%, and give them corrective feedback after each judgment they make, they might well learn how to accurately identify lies from demeanor. I do not expect that accuracy will reach 100%, and for that reason I do not believe that judgments about who is lying should be allowable evidence in court. Such judgments, however, may provide a sounder basis for deciding (at least initially), whom to investigate further, and when to ask more questions to clarify when something unusual has been noticed.


Can You Catch a Liar?

Take the Micro Expressions Test to see if you can spot a liar. Micro expressions are facial expressions that occur in the fraction of a second, giving us clues to how someone is feeling.

Paul Ekman is a well-known psychologist and co-discoverer of micro expressions. He was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by TIME magazine in 2009. He has worked with many government agencies, domestic and abroad. Dr. Ekman has compiled over 50 years of his research to create comprehensive training tools to read the hidden emotions of those around you.

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