The lying game: uncovering the truth about liars
We all tell lies but some of us are woefully bad at it while others have perfected the skill – it’s all down to body language, say experts
Geraldine Walsh with her children Devin and Allegra, who is discovering the benefits of lying. Photograph: Donall Farmer for The Irish Times
At five years’ old, my daughter is learning the art of lying. It’s almost a natural transgression of life considering I’m sure it’s not on the school curriculum and I certainly don’t have the skills to teach her how to pull the wool over my eyes, being an unconvincing liar myself.
Lying, however, is something which makes us human. I am not immune from the little white lies considering we, as humans, have a natural ability to lie with ease, whether we get away with it or not. My daughter has become relatively intrigued with the little white lies and has adapted a persuasive insistence when I question her, but she has a lot to learn about body language, tells and the exhaustive exaggeration of impossible details.
Lying may be an ancient evolution, with some of us woefully bad at it and others exerting a natural predisposition and compulsion. We all lie to some extent or another, whether it’s because of fear, shame, guilt, or politeness. Profiler Joseph McGuire of Clearsight Communications says: “Human minds are flexible and moral and ethical standards vary widely. One person’s lie is another person’s perception. Stress, lack of confidence and self-esteem can impact us hugely, and lying may be a temporary response to a pressure situation.”
The morals of a five-year-old are questionable. It seems the skills to lie come before understanding the ethics behind the lie. Which might say more about my parenting but nonetheless lies sometimes work. We lie because we may gain from it and even a five-year-old understands that. Our bodies, however, give us away with even the most proficient liar displaying elements which may highlight a transgression. Interpreting those tells is the issue.
Julie Provino is an international HR leader, mindfulness and neurolinguistic programming coach. She says: “Our body tends to speak for us, whether we know it, or choose to ignore it. Seventy per cent of all human interaction is through non-verbal cues. This means most of our communication is conveyed through our body movement, our tone, our breath and so on. Some of us may be more comfortable with the thought or the act of lying and may be less flustered or affected physically by lying, whilst others will have more of a bodily reaction. Their body may blush, they make shake, their eyes may reach out to a different direction, their pulse may raise and so on.”
My daughter’s wide eyes, giggles and absolute insistence on being truthful, give away her failed attempts at lying. But my catching of her white lies does not stop her from trying to perfect the skill. In the future, I am certain she will become rather adept at deceiving me. Which brings me to how we can learn to spot deception, or at least try.
McGuire says catching a liar is not always possible. “Several studies have shown that even amongst experienced professionals, accuracy in spotting lies ranges around 50 per cent,” he says. “No single gesture or movement is a reliable indicator of lying. What is essential is to observe what we call baseline behaviour, which means how someone behaves and moves when there is nothing at stake. Any sudden movements or gestures, however small, are likely to indicate tension, which may or may not be signs of lying. It’s a fallacy that liars are likely to make less eye contact. In fact, the opposite is more likely to be true, as they hold the contact for longer to convey credibility. We also find they’re likely to smile less, and use fake smiles, using only the lower half of the face but not the eyes. Also, when stressed, we tend to blink more.
“We need to pay attention to the words and tone alongside the body language. If something appears off, it’s usually a good idea to ask the person to repeat their story. If they use the exact same words and add no other details, they’re hiding something. Equally, if they’re referring to themselves in the third person, be alert.”
A five-year-old would not be aware of these simple cues or bodily changes, but a 35-year-old might, and directly try to hide or quell the rising redness in their cheeks when a lie of significant importance is being shared. When lying, we consciously or unconsciously reinforce the phony truth as best we can, but we are all unique, with varying reactions and tells. As Provino says, we are all completely individual to each other. No response to a specific stimulus will be consistently the same. Which is unfortunate for the person attempting to figure out where the truth lies. It takes time to understand the body language of even your nearest and dearest. Trying to figure out the legitimacy of a stranger, an acquaintance or the politician on your doorstep can prove a minefield.
Provino wouldn’t recommend paying too much attention to our body language or that of others, as our minds and bodies issue various conscious and unconscious signs. “We read others’ cues of anger, happiness and joy pretty well but there is so much more going on under the surface,” she says. “For a novice to be attempting to control his or her body language needs careful practice. The risk of appearing inauthentic will put any relationship at a threat.”
Invariably, this skill of attempting to control these tells is what my five-year-old is over-working. When she realises she is unable to fully control how her body betrays her when lying, and downplays the dramatics of the lie, she will inevitably switch tactics and possibly become better able to hide those tells. At which stage, I will be at a loss to unearth the truth and that will be a whole new ball bouncing around the court of this mother-daughter relationship.
Aside from attaching the lying perpetrator to a polygraph, detecting even white lies takes skill, a dexterous acuity, and an understanding of the human mind. Becoming a human lie detector may not be possible for us average Joe Soaps considering, as we dig deeper down the rabbit hole, another factor that hinders us is that lies often become a truth to the person telling the fib.
This makes us even more blind to the reality. As Provino puts it, “Unless we can go into someone’s mind and read it for ourselves, we never really know what the person is telling themselves whilst they are telling their lies.”