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, 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.”
Deliberately deceitful 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 can preserve his reputation for moral propriety. An employee might lie about why she is chronically late to work, blaming it on her commute, when in reality, it is her 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 man may lie about cheating so his significant other does not break up with him. Or, a conscientious woman might compliment her friend’s attire even if she believes it is hideous, because she doesn’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 and unnecessary 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 she endured in a misguided attempt to protect her abuser. A parent might lie about a child’s actions to protect that child from legal consequences that could destroy his life. These lies help to shield someone from accountability and may or may not be justifiable depending on the circumstances.
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 her credentials and work experience to land that dream job. A date might lie about what he does for a living to make someone perceive him as a desirable partner. These lies are based in self-interest and are told to gain something – whether it be status, approval or even a more tangible gain like a promotion or career opportunity.
6. To mitigate or evade conflict. According to some researchers, some liars deceive in order to avoid conflict and confrontation. If the act of lying can lead to more benefits than consequences interpersonally, it is “worth” doing in the liar’s mind.
In this context, the liar may fear punishment or the perceived punishment of confronting someone else’s undesirable emotional reaction. A teenager might lie about where she has been to avoid the wrath of her abusive father – a legitimate lie which is told for self-protection. Or, a fearful student might lie about studying for an exam if he fears his teacher’s disappointment.
In the former context, the liar has justifiable reasons for lying – she knows that her abusive father will resort to violence if she tells the truth. In the latter scenario, the liar is attempting to appease his own anxiety surrounding disapproval, when in fact, the truth may actually benefit them both in the long-term.
7. Instant gratification. If the perceived reward of lying can bring instantaneous results to the person lying, he or she may be more likely to fib. This form of lying is all about the end result. It occurs 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 to us about wanting a serious relationship – just to get laid.
This type of lying is about gratifying one’s need for immediate access to one’s desired outcome – with little to no concern about actually fulfilling any obligations, promises or expectations in the future.
The Chronic Liar
Not all lies are the same and not are all liars pathological. 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. Some lies perform irrevocable harm, while others actually prevent damage.
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 diminish 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 will I be gaining? But rather, what could I be 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.