Valentine’s day around the corner – when your partner says “I love you” – how do you know if they are telling the truth?
You will not be surprised to learn that we are lied to all the time – in work situations, in social situations and in our most intimate relationships. Understanding lying allows us to better detect it from others – and ourselves – and seek higher quality communication and truth.
Deceptions are common.
Over 60% of all 10 minute conversations contain at least one lie – and usually it is more than three. More often than not, both parties are ‘spicing up’ the discussion with a broad sprinkling of lies, falsehoods and deceptions. Humans start lying and deceiving from around 6 months of age, and it comes a practiced part of normal communication. It has been reported that in normal society we are exposed to up to 200 lies per day.
Why we lie.
Lying takes on a number of different forms, each one is used in different circumstances and for different outcomes. We lie for both tactical and social reasons, and four of the most common types of lies are:
Deceptions for advantage: These are the lies that people knowingly use to get or take advantage. These lies lead to a benefit for the person telling the fabrication, either directly or comparatively versus others. These lies are used to get ourselves out of trouble (“No officer, I haven’t been drinking!”) or to gain something (I bought it for $20, but you can have it for…)
Deceptions of identity: These are lies we tell to ensure that we can project the self-image of ourselves that we believe (or want to believe) is true. Often these are not told to gain any advantage, but more to ‘build the story’ of who we are in relation to our social or peer groups. These are usually exaggerations and distortions. Consider the person who wants to have an image that they are a great fisherman. How many fish they caught, how big the fish were, or the ‘justifications’ made (the one that got away) may all be exaggerated or distorted in the telling so that their desired image can remain intact.
Deceptions to diminish discomfort. Recent MRI scans showed how disagreements lead to increased stress in the brains on people in social situations. Even when we know something is true, we will often lie – or not correct a lie – to avoid conflict. This is done often to avoid social confrontations and to enhance inclusion or social acceptance. For many, these lies are habitual and are offered almost without thinking.
Deceptions of protection. Lies are told when the truth is known, but there is a belief that the other party will be hurt by, or not be able to manage hearing the truth. Jack Nicholson’s character in the movie “A few good men” is famously remembered for his courtroom outburst: “The truth? You can’t handle the truth!” This relates to our belief in what the other person can or cannot cope with.
Research suggests we lie 75% of the time for our own benefit, and 25% of the time for the benefit of the other party.
Which lies do you tell? When are you most likely to lie?
How do we lie?
The brain has to do a number of different things to create a deliberate lie compared to when it only has to reproduce the truth (of course, the truth may be wrong, but for the person it is what they know and believe as true).
For a memory recall, the long term memory function is triggered by attentional processes (priming, dehabituation or relevance) and a ‘memory’ of the event, fact or process – with its associated emotions and meanings – is placed in working memory. From here is translated into external signalling that makes up communication (what we say, how we say it, our associated movements and physiological responses). There is little or no modification of the memory, its recall or its transmission.
On the other hand, a lie involves significant extra processing, which is where the possibility for detecting the lie emerges.
Firstly, the actual memory is recalled with all of its emotion and meanings. Through ideo-motor (unconscious movement) and ideo-affective (unconscious emotion generation) processes, the emotions can ‘leak’ into our physical and physiological responses. Whilst we are busy ‘creating’ the lie, aspects of the truth can unconsciously leak into body language and facial signals.
The ‘story’ has to then be constructed, which takes processing time and effort. The truth has to be tested against our desired communication outcome, and modified using processing and working memory. On top of this, because the ‘liar’ knows it is a lie, social self-judgement is activated regarding our lying. All of this leads to semantic, grammatical, timing, structural and self-censorship events that can indicate that a person is lying.
In all cases, however, if the person believes they are telling the truth (recall of a falsehood that they believe is real), they will not add these elements. Even more telling, ‘false memories’ can be created, true memories modified and re-encoded, or people can ‘fill in the blanks’ unconsciously as they recall memories that lack detail or are incomplete. The false memories controversy relating to psychotherapy, and the record of eye-witness recall for crimes attests to how commonly (regardless of the intent of the person making the recall) what people ‘remember’ is simply not true.
You would expect that with lies being so commonplace people would be good at detecting them. In fact, people have been shown to be no better than chance at detecting any lie, and up to 75% of all lies go undetected. With training and practice you can improve by about 10-15%, but even the best ‘lie detectors’ still miss many lies.
How do we spot deceptions?
Know you are going to be lied to. The first thing that improves detection of lying is suspicion. When we have our ‘radar’ on for lying, we are more likely to detect the subtle signals that may mean a deception has been offered. However, if we get drawn into the story, we focus on the content rather than the structure of the delivery and will simply miss all but the most blatant cues.
Congruence. Because communication occurs through multiple channels (verbal, tonal, body language) – natural recall involves congruent communication. When someone lies, they often ‘communicate’ the lie through ideo-motor or ideo-affective leakage – that is, the automatic process of generating feelings or body movements relates to the recall of the truth, not to the constructed falsehood. Incongruence in signals across communication channels may indicate a lie is in play.
Body language: Much is made of looking for specific movements that are supposed to show up a lie. Often, using body language to detect lies is far more complex than that. Apart from the body language not being congruent, people will minimise body language signals for lies (as they try to control them), or they will change their natural movements in the lie. Sitting with your arms crossed, scratching your face, tapping a finger may mean nothing if this is your normal (baseline) body language pattern. It is when these change, or a whole new signal is added, that we can start to ask about the quality of the communication.
Microsigns: Paul Eckmann did some fascinating anthropological research looking at the way emotions are expressed across cultures. There are seven basic emotions that – regardless of culture – all show up in the same way. These include happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, contempt, disgust and fear.
Remote highlanders in New Guinea who had never interacted with other cultures used the same facial expressions to denote emotions as people in New York, the Middle East and Africa. Taking this work further, Ekman noted that people give off ‘micro-signs’ – tiny, very short facial expressions representing the emotion of the communicator.
Interestingly, these occur outside the awareness of the person, and often give an indication of the emotion being felt at that moment. It ‘leaks’ from our information processing and self-evaluation to give insight into personal meaning. Paying attention to such micro-signs allows you to note incongruences in emotional leakage versus what you would expect.
However, as the person may be feeling emotion about any aspect of the recall process, the micro-sign may not indicate a lie, but rather a self-judgement. For example, I could think badly of myself (show the contempt sign) for my role in an event, when I am expressing sadness or fear in my story. I may not be lying, just self-assessing. It is therefore important not to jump to a conclusion that a lie has occurred, but rather gather it as ‘information’.
Statement analysis: Lies are constructed, often under the fear that they will be discovered. Most lies are therefore communicated in ways to try not to draw attention to themselves. As they are constructed, issues with grammar, tense, tonality, adjective selection and framing appear as part-truths are infused with immediate constructions.
Lies often lack emotional adjectives, or vivid description. They often shift from past tense (true memory) to present tense (creation). One common way that lies are communicated is by changing the pronoun structure – instead of “I”, “we” is often used.
When you ask for specific details regarding an incident, memories can be reported quicker than created detail (more processing is required). Often a lie is practiced to sound like the truth (it is rehearsed and can be recalled like a true memory), however when asked for additional details, specifics or extensions on what they have rehearsed, the lie can be easily detected by the time lags, mix ups, tonal changes and body/face incongruence aspects (discussed above).
Reading over transcripts of how people described situations allows you to really see the possible fabrications and constructions, including language and grammatical violations that are easily overlooked in common conversation. In the moment it can be difficult to catch the subtle language cues of lying as we also engage in the content.
Does it matter?
Detecting a physical, physiological or verbal cue that someone is lying does not always mean that they are. Often people are busy having self-talk and self-judgement running in their heads whilst they are communicating to you, or even thinking about other things. The signals that you pick up may be based on a lie, but could also be based on their response to all this other ‘stuff’ going on in their heads.
If you think you are being lied to, you can always ask for more information, or check the information from another source.
It comes down to three questions:
• Does it matter (is the topic critical that I need to be highly suspicious to ensure I get the truth?). Am I likely to be disadvantaged by a lie in this circumstance?
• Do I trust this person? Do I believe that they are looking after my interests, even if they are lying to me? (25% of other’s lies are for my benefit, anyway!)
• What impact will calling out the lie have on the conversation and the relationship?
There are times when lies have massive impact, and times when they simply act as ‘social grease’ to ease discomfort, allow people to feel good about themselves and really cause little harm. However, it is common today for people to be in the habit of not telling the truth to others and themselves. They are comfortable telling lies and allow them to be told to them.
It becomes easy to tell lies. They creep in as excuses, justifications, denials and blame for things that happen. We distort the truth to manage our image and take advantage far more often than we like to admit. When you run late, do you make an excuse ‘Sorry I’m late, the traffic was terrible’ (even when it was not), or do you simply cut the ‘excuse’ and stick to the truth?
Do you look for times to exaggerate your story, omit key facts or modify the truth in order to misdirect the other’s understanding of the situation, or your role in it? What would happen if you took the time to eliminate these lies from your communication? What if, rather than lying out of habit, you consciously decided on how you were going to communicate, including the accuracy of what you chose to say? It would mean taking responsibility for your actions and communications, and being OK with not knowing.
I challenge you to try.
Research and stats: