Did you know that just 54 percent of lies can be accurately spotted? Also, extroverts tend to tell more lies than introverts, according to Vanessa Van Edwards, author of the national best-selling book Captivate and founder and lead investigator of the Science of People.
According to her research, at least 82 percent of lies go undetected, which led her to develop a course in lie detection titled “How to Be a Human Lie Detector.” The numbers show that such a course may be a good investment: in a study titled “Prevalence of Lying in America,” only six out of ten Americans claimed to tell the truth every day.
With numbers like these, one nation, even if under oath, may not be very trustworthy. The good news is that even though roughly half of the population promises to be telling the truth, there are some ways people can increase their truth discernment skills to protect themselves from emotional and financial ruin.
While lie detection courses are valuable for face-to-face interactions, the lies that do the most financial damage in the 21st century happen over telecommunications. According to USA.gov, communication channels such as phone, email, text, online classifieds, or social media are used to deceive or threaten people to give out their personal information or money.
Just how much hard-earned cash has been lost by people under duress? In 2018, scam victims reported losing $1.48 billion in fraud—a staggering increase of 38 percent from 2017, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
And the victims aren’t just pensioners; in 2018, people in their 20s reported losing an average of $400 compared to $751 for people in their 70s. That number more than doubled for people in their 80s who lost an average of $1,700 in the same year.
It can’t be stated often enough: to protect your financial and personal assets from liars, never ever give out your personal information or transfer money by wire transfer to someone you don’t know.
Whether you’re dealing with false online threats or dishonest people lying to your face, the question remains: what are the signs that someone is lying? According to Vanessa Van Edwards, this is one of the first steps in becoming familiar with how someone typically acts. This is the process of establishing a baseline, which she defines as “How someone acts when they are under normal, non-threatening conditions […] or how someone looks when they are telling the truth.”
In other words, it may be difficult to tell when someone is lying if you don’t know how they act when they are telling the truth, which underscores the importance of establishing trust with someone before you share personal information. For example, it’s always best to call your bank directly and know who you’re speaking with rather than trust someone who calls at random or puts an official-looking letter in the mail claiming to be a bank employee.
On the other hand, if you know someone and find yourself wondering if you’re being told the whole truth or a half-truth, here is a science-backed list of top 10 signs that someone is lying.
One telltale sign someone may not be telling the whole truth is irregular speech. According to Gregg McCrary, a retired FBI criminal profiler, a person’s voice or mannerisms of speaking may change when they tell a lie, as reported on Real Simple.
McCrary first takes the strategy of identifying a person’s regular speech patterns and mannerisms by asking typical, straightforward questions, such as what their name is or where they live. This allows him to see any changes in speaking or characteristics when he asks more challenging, interrogative questions.
If a person says yes but shakes their head no, it may indicate that they’re not telling the truth. As Dr. Ellen Hendriksen, a clinical psychologist at Boston University’s Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, points out in Scientific American, non-congruent gestures are movements in the body that don’t match the words a person says, and the gestures are the truth-tellers. In Dr. Hendricksen’s example, if someone says, “Of course I’ll cooperate with the investigation” and gives a small head shake, there’s a possibility they will not tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
When truth-telling witnesses describe what they saw and are asked: “Is there anything else?” more details are revealed. But when liars are asked to go beyond their prepared stories, few to no other details are offered.
Researchers quoted in the American Psychological Association (APA) refer to these people as “liars who deceive by omission,” who, when asked to answer questions or provide more details, typically offer less than those telling the truth. This can be quantified through transcripts of phone calls, witness statements, or noticed by an absence of descriptive words in a conversation.
Another way researchers verify the truth is by asking people to tell events backward. Truth-tellers will stick to the same story while offering more details, while liars often get tripped up and create a different story while not adding detail to the original.
On the flip side, researchers from Harvard Business School determined that liars trying to deceive stretch the truth with too many words. Since such a liar may make up things as they go, they may also tend to add excessive detail to convince themselves or others of what they are saying. They may also embellish with words that a person telling the truth wouldn’t think of adding.
Other linguistic cues revealed in this study show that liars tend to use more profanity and third-person pronouns (e.g., he, she, and they) to distance themselves from any first-person (e.g., I, my, mine) involvement.
In the same APA article, an important point is raised around culture, context, and communication regarding detecting lies.
Dr. David Matsumoto, a professor of psychology at San Francisco State University and CEO of Humintell, a consulting company that trains people to read human emotions, emphasizes that researchers must consider cultural bias when determining if someone is lying or not. For example, his lie detection research found that Chinese participants tend to speak with a higher vocal pitch when lying. In direct contrast, Hispanic research participants spoke with a lower vocal pitch when lying.
This research shows that non-verbal cues for lying can correlate with cultural differences, which should be considered rather than judging only from one’s own cultural beliefs.
Much has been discussed on the topic of truthfulness and eye contact. A commonly-held cultural belief in the United States is: if a person isn’t making eye contact, they aren’t telling the truth, whereas, in other cultures, eye contact can be considered untrustworthy in a given context.
A study titled “The Eyes Don’t Have It,” published in 2012 in Plos One, debunked the notion that people look left or right when lying. However, a research study conducted in 2015 by the University of Michigan and featured in Time Magazine showed that 70 percent of people in 120 media clips lied while maintaining direct eye contact.
Many people want to cover up a lie or hide from their reaction to it, which may be why they put their hands over their eyes or mouths when letting an untruth out. According to former CIA officers in their book Spy the Lie, others may even completely close their eyes when telling a lie, as reported in Parade Magazine. This could be especially true when it’s in response to a question that does not require a lot of reflection.
Think about what a kid does when asked where the last cookie went. They may lick their lips, look at their nails, or even shake their hands—and then tell a big whopper of a lie.
What’s happening is that their anxiety-response has kicked in it, causing blood to be withdrawn from their extremities, according to the former CIA officers quoted in Parade Magazine. They may be unconsciously trying to calm that anxiety response or at least get the blood flowing back to their extremities, all of which could point to nervousness about telling a lie.
The act of pointing at or toward something or someone else, with gestures or words, may signal a surefire desire to take a focus off of an individual and place blame onto someone else, according to Business Insider.
Of course, knowing if that person normally gesticulates or finger points frequently can be a helpful baseline. However, if someone speaks in a measured demeanor as opposed to a hostile one that includes finger-pointing, this aggressive switch may indicate someone is lying.
Perhaps the easiest way to spot a liar is to let them do it for you. In a study titled “Lie prevalence, lie characteristics and strategies of self-reported good liars,” research published in 2019 in Plos One showed that those who identify as “good liars” are more of an honest indicator than lie detector tests.
This study showed that “good liars” mostly told little lies to colleagues and friends in-person and focused on telling simple and clear stories. This research’s easy takeaway is that if someone brags about being a good liar, don’t trust them.
While forensics professionals are trained to learn strategies to elicit the truth from fiction, you don’t have to be a detective or own a lie detector machine to know when someone may be lying face-to-face, over the phone, or in an email or text.
By nature, the truth can be subjective and personal perspectives can skew what’s real and not real. The strategies used to spot a lie can sometimes be confusing or even conflicting. To this point, a study published in the British Psychological Society showed that people with high levels of emotional intelligence might read people well but have trouble determining if a personal story is deceptive or not.
And while the signs listed above are based on quantitative (proven by numerical data) and qualitative (confirmed by description) research, no single technique should be used alone as a determining factor for catching someone in a lie for personal or law enforcement purposes. Researchers do their best to design studies that isolate specific evidence, but every situation is unique and should be handled carefully depending on circumstances.
To learn more about how to spot the signs that someone is lying, consider becoming a criminal investigator. Professionals in this field are classified as forensic scientists or police and detectives by the BLS, depending on job responsibilities.
For those interested in learning more, Udemy offers courses such as Lie Detection Course: Taught by FBI Trainer, which shows how to sort truth from fiction in speech, voice messages, or email. It is taught by best-selling author Dr. David J. Lieberman who has trained NSA, CIA, and FBI agents.
When in doubt, let your instincts protect your personal and financial information. To summarize some practical advice from the Federal Trade Commission: if you think someone might be lying to you, leave the conversation, hang up the phone, stop emailing or texting, and report what happened immediately to someone you actually know and trust.
Rachel Drummond is a freelance writer, educator, and yogini from Oregon. She’s taught English to international university students in the United States and Japan for more than a decade and has a master’s degree in education from the University of Oregon. Rachel writes about meditation, yoga, coaching, and more on her blog (Instagram: @racheldrummondyoga).