True or False? How to be a Human Lie Detector

OK, here are a few things about me. See if you can detect the lie: I have a dog named Moonshine, I love calculus, and my favorite food is chocolate. I don’t like the color orange, and I’ve never been to Spain.

Unless you know me really well, you probably have no way of telling which one of those statements is a lie. They’re all plausible and nothing seems too absurd, so how could you know that I don’t have a dog named Moonshine? FYI, my dog’s name is Rodeo. His sister was named Moonshine. Had I told you those statements in person, however, you probably still wouldn’t have gotten it right. But had you read this article, you’d have a much better chance at knowing when I’m fibbing—and that’s no lie.

So first things first: what is a lie? Simply put, a lie is an intentionally false statement. It is important to recognize the intentionality of the lie because that means people who have been told a lie and are merely repeating what they believe to be fact aren’t liars.

The next question to ask is, who lies and why do they do it? In short, everyone lies. In a study performed at University of California, Santa Barbara, 77 college students and 70 people from the local community were asked to record the lies they told over the span of one week. By the end of the week, 1535 lies had been recorded, amounting to two lies a day for college students and one lie a day for the people in the community.

Although the methods of the study are questionable because, ironically, they illustrate that humans are frequent liars by relying on humans to tell the truth, it is indicative of a general trend that I’m sure most of you have already noticed: Everyone lies—even gorillas! Koko, the gorilla who can use sign language, said that her pet kitten was the one who tore out the sink in Koko’s room.

Why do humans lie? We lie to avoid punishment (the kitten did it, not me!), avoid embarrassment (This 1D album? It’s for a friend), gain advantage (Tina Fey and I are best friends), and gain esteem (I definitely started my own club that was very successful; please give me this job). Not all lies are for personal gain, however, as we can all probably imagine instances in which we've lied to help a friend.

Lying seems to be a learned behavior. For instance, young children, much like Koko, aren’t very good liars. But can we learn to be as adept at truth-detecting as we are at lying? In her TED talk, Pamela Meyer tells us how to spot a lie.

“I want you to listen to me. I’m going to say this again. I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” Meyer quotes President Clinton’s famous lie to demonstrate the linguistic tendencies of liars. The first hint is what interrogators call “non-contracted denial.” Instead of saying “I didn’t have sexual relations with that woman,” President Clinton said that he “did not.” Studies have shown that people who are trying to hide the truth will resort to formal language. Furthermore, liars often use distancing language, such as “that woman.” Lastly, liars use qualifying language, such as “in all candor…” to discredit the subject.

Meyer also looks at body language. It’s often said that liars avoid eye contact when they’re fibbing, when actually some liars make too much eye contact to compensate for the myth. If you suspect someone of fabricating a story, ask them to tell the story backwards and watch them squirm. Some people will actually shake their heads “no” when they say “yes.” So even if we think we are the best liars ever, our bodies will sometimes give us away.

Before you go around accusing all of your friends of lying to your face, heed these warnings: one non-contracted word does not make a lie—look for clusters of these signals before you point any fingers; know the people you’re examining—if they are the type of people who make eye contact constantly, then you won’t be able to tell if they’re overcompensating; and remember, we all lie sometimes, even the most vigilant lie-spotters.

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