Deception comes in many forms, and lying is just one of them. According to author Pamela Meyer, author of Liespotting: Proven Techniques to Detect Deception, strangers lie within minutes of meeting one another and the average person hears between ten to two hundred lies per day, although most lies go undetected. Meyer notes many of the tell-tale signs that someone is lying. She discusses everything from fleeting microexpressions and contradictory body language to fake smiles, asymmetrical expressions, qualifying, distancing or empathic language; she examines shifts in blinking, signs of contempt and even crocodile tears.
Liars can display a cluster of symptoms which give them away. A liar might constantly use qualifying phrases like, “To tell you the truth” or “Honestly.” They may refrain from using “I” in their fabricated tales in order to distance themselves. They may shake their head no even while saying yes. Their facial expressions might give away a sneer of contempt, as if they are superior to the person they’re deceiving. They could “parrot” back the question they’re asked to stall for time as they come up with a story. Or, they may even cry as a way to garner sympathy from the person they’re lying to.
Meyer notes that our intuition can play a key role in discerning a lie and that we can marry our intuition with our observations to detect deception in our midst. She says, “If your instinct tells you that someone isn’t being entirely truthful, and you notice that he’s blinking a lot, and he’s giving you an asymmetrical smile, pay attention: you’ve got good reason to pursue the matter.”
Liars may also attempt to preemptively convince their victims that their lies are factual by dressing up their lies with elaborate and unnecessary details. Gavin de Becker, author of The Gift of Fear, writes:
“People who want to deceive you…will often use a simple technique which has a simple name: too many details. When people are telling the truth, they don’t feel doubted, so they don’t feel the need for additional support in the form of details. When people lie, however, even if what they say sounds credible to you, it doesn’t sound credible to them, so they keep talking. Each detail may be only a small tack he throws on the road, but together they can stop a truck.”
Liars can also reveal their lie more overtly by reacting aggressively or defensively to their victims when called out for their lies. They may project their own malignant traits onto the person they’re lying to, they might stonewall the victim by shutting down the conversation even before it’s begun, they may divert from the topic altogether or even respond in rage. Former CIA officer Susan Carnicero notes that liars can evade addressing the question by giving excessive amounts of unnecessary information in response that do not directly address the question at hand.
Yet even with all the information we have about how to spot a liar, the other major question remains: why do people lie in the first place?
Here are seven major reasons why someone might lie:
1. To preserve their self-image. Whether it be minor white lies that exaggerate one’s accomplishments or elaborate tall tales that omit important information about one’s shady character, those who are led to lie for this reason are attempting to preserve their self-image. They want to engage in “impression management” so that others perceive them in the best possible light. A politician might fib about an extramarital affair so he or she can preserve their reputation for moral excellence. An employee might lie about why they are chronically late to work, blaming it on their commute, when in reality, it is their inability to wake up early in the morning.
2. Personality disorders and pathological, compulsive lying. This form of lying stems from a far deeper and darker problem – a personality disorder prone to manipulation or a pathological issue such as compulsive lying. Those with Narcissistic Personality Disorder or Antisocial Personality Disorder, for example, are known for their pathological lying. They lie in order to deceive, to manipulate and for their own benefit.
Those with sociopathic or psychopathic traits can lie to gaslight someone and erode their sense of reality, causing their victims feel off-balance. Some even lie when the situation does not warrant it because it gives them “duping delight” – the pleasure of being able to one-up someone which reveals itself in the flash of a creepy, satisfied smile. For them, lying is something that satisfies their sadistic need to be in control.
3. To protect a relationship or someone else’s feelings. These types of lies are usually told to protect a significant relationship. For example, a relationship partner may lie about an affair so their significant other does not break up with them. Or, someone might compliment their friend’s attire even if they believe it is hideous, because they don’t want to hurt that person’s feelings. While the intention behind this form of lying can be either well-intentioned or deceitful, its main agenda lies in preserving the relationship or sparing someone undue pain.
4. To protect someone else. This form of lying is done with the intention of protecting someone from the consequences of their actions. A domestic violence survivor might lie about the extent of the abuse they endured in a misguided attempt to protect his or her abuser. A parent might lie about a child’s actions to protect that child from legal consequences. These lies help to shield someone from accountability and may or may not be justifiable.
5. To impress people and boost one’s reputation. This is a common form of lying that is normally tied to one’s desire to impress society or crucial stakeholders in one’s life. A potential job candidate might exaggerate their credentials and work experience to land that dream job; a date might lie about what he or she does for a living to make someone perceive them as a desirable partner.
6. To mitigate or evade conflict. According to some researchers, some liars do so in order to avoid conflict and confrontation. If the act of lying can lead to more benefits than consequences, it is “worth” doing in the liar’s mind. The liar may or may not fear punishment. An abused teenager might lie about where she has been to avoid the wrath of her father.
Or, on the other hand, it may be more about the perceived punishment of confronting someone’s emotional reaction. A fearful student might lie about studying for an exam if they fear their teacher’s disappointment or disapproval.
7. Instant gratification. If the perceived reward of lying can bring instantaneous results to the person lying, they may be more likely to. This is when a child “promises” to clean his room in order to watch his favorite television show, but later fails to do so. Or when a dating partner lies about wanting a serious relationship just to get into their desired mate’s pants. This form of lying is all about gratifying one’s need for immediate access to one’s desired outcome.
The Chronic Liar
Some lies are justifiable, while others aren’t. Some are major, while others are minor. Some are done with good intentions, while other lies are employed with malice.
Yet when used chronically, lying can lead to more than just deception. It can wreak havoc on a relationship, create an untrustworthy and unreliable environment and erode one’s sense of reality.
Before one turns to lying as a main form of communicaton, the real question they ask themselves shouldn’t be, what am I gaining? But rather, what am I losing?
Gozna, L. F., Vrij, A., & Bull, R. (1996). Lying in Everyday Life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 979-995. doi:10.1037/t13495-000
Becker, G. D. (2010). The gift of fear: Survival signals that protect us from violence. London: Bloomsbury.
Digiday, & Carnicero, S. (2016, February 09). Former CIA officer will teach you how to spot a lie. Retrieved here.
Meyer, P. (2011). Liespotting: Proven techniques to detect deception. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.
Meyer, P. (2011). Pamela Meyer: How to spot a liar. TED Talk. Retrieved here.