5 Ways to ‘Out’ a Liar

People lie. From little white lies to the lies that scar the world, lying is a fact of life. It’s also a fact that most people are honest but from a glance, the liars (especially the masterful ones) and the truth tellers can be difficult to tell apart. Now there’s research that can guide us through. 

A popular misconception about lying is that there are verbal or nonverbal behaviours that are a dead giveaway that you’re being lied to. The disappointing news is that there aren’t.

Previous research has found that both experts and non-experts have a 50/50 chance at detecting a lie.

So – unless the nonverbal cue involves something less subtle, like a written admission tied to a balloon and passed to you mid-fib, your odds at deception detection are no better than flipping a coin.

Enter the scientists.

Researchers have found a way to increase our odds at detecting deception and it has little to do with nonverbal cues. Rather, it’s based on the fact that lying is hard work and to be successful at the con, liars have to be working on several things at once, all of which increase the cognitive load and lean hard on mental resources:

  • They have to be sure about their story, making sure nothing slips to gives them away. Everything they say has to line up. This is hard work when there’s nothing concrete (like, say, the truth) to anchor to.
  • They have to memorise their story and act as though it’s true. A decent lie needs the relevant emotion to make it believable. Contriving emotion is no easy task, though of course there’ll always be those who are masterful.
  • They have to constantly assess whether the listener is ‘buying’ their story and make adjustments where necessary – more emotion, less emotion or fatten the story with extra detail.
  • They have to continuously refer to their memory to make sure the story they’re telling now is the same as the version they told before.

Clearly, lying is hard work, drawing on a lot more mental resources than telling the truth. To lie is to perform and to perform takes effort, not the least of which is remembering the script and delivering a knockout performance.

Using this observation, the experts in the field have come up with ways to expose the liars in our midst by depleting their much needed mental resources, to the point where liars are unable to keep up the act:

  1. Ask questions from the assumption of guilt.

    Ask questions based on a presumption of guilt, rather than innocence, and actively interrupt denials. A recent study published in Human Communication Research demonstrated that this type of questioning could uncover a lie 97.8% of the time. This is compared to the 50% strike rate when this isn’t used.

    (Be careful though – if you’re going to do this, make sure you have good reason to suspect you’re being lied to. Understandably treating honest people as though they’re liars is likely to make them bristle.)

  2. Ask open then closed questions.

    . Closed questions can be answered with a quick ‘yes’ or ‘no’. People who are telling the truth want all the facts to be out there so in response to a closed question, they’ll often give more than a one word answer. Liars, on the other hand, will say less for fear of revealing their deception. For them, a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ will be plenty.

     

  3. Ask about the story in reverse.

    Rather than starting at the beginning and asking what came next, start at the end and ask what came before. It’s hard to tell a story in reverse at the best of times but when the facts are made up, it’s even harder. If the story you’re being told is a fib, you’ll soon see the slipping and sliding.

  4. Ask unexpected questions (about unexpected detail)

    Liars are as sensitive to the cliches (‘I don’t remember’/ ‘I don’t know’) as the rest of us so they’ll try to give reasonable answers. Often they’ll have worked out the more significant details in advance but the smaller ones won’t have been given a thought. Ask about those. If you suspect that ‘I was at a work dinner’ is a lie, ask: Who did you sit near? What did they eat? What did you talk about? Who was still there when you left? What did you eat? Where was the table? How many empty tables were there? The detail you ask about depends on the lie, but ask about smells, colours, cost etc. Ask the same questions more than once but in a different way.

  5. Maintain eye contact.

    Okay. This is kind of non-verbal but when used with the other tips, it will give your internal lie detector a boost. When people lie, they have to constantly draw on their memory to make sure what they’re saying lines up with what they’ve said before. The story has to be exactly the same as every version that came before it. This is hard and best done without the distraction of pesky humans who are trying to get to the truth. When somebody is lying, their gaze will often turn to motionless things that won’t distract them while they set to work trying to remember their script. Keeping eye contact makes this harder.  

Most people are honest. I really believe that. But there a few things nothing worse than the feeling you get when you think you’re being played. These strategies will help weed out the fakers, but use them wisely. We all know trust is the scaffold of any relationship and there’ll be damage to repair whenever the scaffold is given a shake – either from lying or from one too many false accusations of lying. Of course, if the scaffolding was shoddy to begin with, then shake away …

19 Comments

JFW

Good luck, I’d be careful. All the little lies start to add up and erode things. You deserve better. I found out and my life is destroyed by all he did.

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Max

I was an accomplished drinker and liar as an alcoholic, until I gave up drinking. But I know how hard it is to remember every lie you tell, it’s like another full time job. It is exhausting, all the planning around the lie and remembering who knows what. The problem for me is I now find it hard to trust people are telling me the truth. I think everyone else was as good as I was for over 15 years. When the truth did come out (from me) people were shocked and surprised, they didn’t realise it. I also find it harder to lie now.

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Qu Bozov

Married for 75 days before I caught my husband cheating and found out much a compulsive liar he is and he was not totally honest before in therapy and counselor has a hard time resisting his gaslighting and omission when asking simple therapy questions tells a lie then says he didn’t say that I won’t be here for much longer but do think it a sad miserable existence for anyone who does this to people they love or who has to deal with this type of treatment I am praying you all gain strength enough to distance yourself from the torture you’ve endured and lean on the one true living God and find more value in yourself than anyone else could ever find in you. I pray you find peace to walk away with your heads held high and love you first.

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AR

Same with me. 12 years… The fact is they double down on their lies… then they twist their story 10 million times until you agree with them that it happened that way. And it’s not because they need to win, I don’t believe it’s a control matter. I believe they need to believe that you didn’t catch them in that lie. they have to be convinced they deceived you or convinced you to believe they’re not a liar because face it it’s embarrassing to be caught in the lie over and over. And so much havoc was created from this pathological behavior that they refuse to admit they’ve screwed up again. If they can convince themselves that you believe all is well, then psychologically they feel better about themselves. I have decided to let it go because the lies are small they’re not hurting me and I know he loves me. He has a problem. So I work around it.
But boy, is it a lot of work. I’ve decided I don’t need to know the truth about many things. Most of it is just exaggeration and lying when he screws up. I gave him a break more often than not because there are worse things he can be out there doing.

Reply
Ray

Thank you. It’s going to hurt but I’m ready. I just have to find the proof. She’s smart and good at this, leaving me to feel like I’m just a crazy jealous nut case. Again, thanks. I believe that it’s a game to her and I’m waiting to be respected.

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Kwrazy

Trying to coincide with a “to the grave” type liar is practically impossible. It requires a lot of standard bar lowering, and accepting of the unacceptable. Its impossible to work on anything. I’ve been married 20 years and not one issue has been resolved. So everytime a new issue arises, so does every issue previously rehashed to no avail. It gets exhausting being wrong all the fcking time. Even when you have proof of being right.

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Steph

Wow…same except only 14 years here. Now I’m at the point where I feel like if he doesn’t tell me the truth that I already know 1000000% than I want to be done for good.

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Tired

Going through the same. What makes it harder is when you have hard fact truth of them lying and you find it sitting right in front of them and they still lie or shut up completely. I have tried everything there is to get my husband to quit lying. I have gotten to the point, in little over 3 years, I am snappy, grumpy, b**chy and he now wonders why i have became a unhappy person.

Reply
Clark

24 years of lying, gaslighting, denial. We are both aware of lies, and I now think there are new lies emerging. I feel like a fool that has been played.

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Ann

I’m going through this right now and i am so broken. How did you deal with it?

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Sincerely

In so confused about an acquaintance/short term friend that lied to me after running into her a few years later. I really liked her then she lied about even knowing me ever. I met her at her job and met with her and we got along well for a few months. I recalled her and after she lied I found her fb page which showed she definitely worked there. I’m confused if she was embarrassed where I saw her again in a social setting, or if she doesn’t like me. It may not seem a big deal but now I have to see her with my friends and they don’t know we knew each other, and I feel I can’t go around my friends because of her. She steals the show with them. How would one confront that situation?

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Ashanti

Good information and ideas, thanks. It’s hard telling your family that one of you is a malicious liar if you have experienced it but they accept lame cover up excuses.

It’s difficult when you’ve not told what’s happened in the past with anyone else!!

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Sheila S

If I were to lie, I would give as few details as possible. Just like an attorney will tell a client, the less you say in court, the less the other side will have to try to trip you up. I always try to give as much detail as possible so people know I’m telling the truth. They will have plenty of details that they can confirm. Also, I have a problem with eye contact. This is present in all situations, but people don’t notice that. I wish people would take these studies with a grain of salt and not automatically believe that these “signs” are absolute truth that someone is lying. Not everyone is the same. I’m now very defensive because so many people use these studies and think I’m lying when I’m telling the truth. Then they think the defensiveness is further indication that I’m lying.

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Yann S

For almost 50 years, I have been a member of a well-known car club. I was always well regarded; I have got a number of awards for my work on behalf or the club. In 2019 I accused the President of lying and distorting the rules to achieve an illicit purpose. He has used the power of his office to muzzle the Board of Directors and numerous members of the Club, to prevent my communicating him or with them on the issue. Is there any remedy against such actions?

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Lin

Had experience with a compulsive liar. They will hold on to their lie, even if you present the facts. In their mind, it’s more about them controlling their own world of fantasy that they live in, rather than admitting the truth.

Reply

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