The Exchange

How to Spot a Liar

The Exchange

Most people at least try to be honest — but we all end up lying anyhow. We tell people they look great when they don’t. We "pretty up" some details when delivering bad news. And we justify these minor deceptions by convincing ourselves nobody will get hurt.

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Some lies are much bigger and more harmful — such as the ones that in recent years that led to an epidemic of bad mortgages, the peddling of toxic subprime securities and the collapse of the housing and financial markets. Dishonesty and distrust seem to have become so commonplace that scholars have intensified research into why people lie and how to tell when they’re doing it.

A new study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and Harvard Business School highlights some of the differences between two types of liars: the traditional kind, who say things they know aren’t true, and “deceivers by omission” who deliberately withhold information to obfuscate what they’re talking about. And it turns out the outright liars are more effective at deception.

The researchers — Lyn M. Van Swol and Michael T. Braun of Wisconsin and Deepak Malhotra of Harvard — set up a series of transactions among 104 test subjects, giving them the choice of either lying or telling the truth. They also measured the participants’ behavior during the transactions, hoping to identify commonalities among liars and truth-tellers.

The 3 habits of outright liars

Outright liars typically engaged in three giveaway habits: They talked more than others, they swore more often and they spoke more often in the third person, as if referring to a distant “him” or “her” rather than “you” or “me.” The researchers dubbed such chatty, profane talk the “Pinocchio effect,” since the more you lie, the more words you use.

“The discomfort and unpleasantness of having to maintain and defend a lie may have led to non-strategic leakage of profanity,” the study says. “Being polite and pleasant requires self-control, and if one’s resources are being depleted by trying to appear truthful, then one is likely to behave in a ruder, more inappropriate fashion.” Liars also tended to talk more to justify their explanations.

Omitters, by contast, spoke less and sometimes left uncomfortable silences in the conversation. They typically made terse statements, offering little elaboration. That was the opposite of the Pinocchio effect.

Truth-tellers came somewhere in the middle, sort of like a control group. There was one exception: When truth-tellers were suspected of lying, they talked more, in an effort to prove their truthfulness.

Honesty in business

Honesty obviously matters in a business environment, where it’s important to know whether to trust somebody you’re considering making a deal with or bringing into a project. So one takeaway might be to seek out business partners who seem neither excitable nor tight-lipped. There are many caveats, of course, needed to account for extroverts, introverts and potty-mouths, so maybe the real focus should be on watching for striking changes in an individual’s demeanor, which could indicate that a usually honest person is telling a fib.

People listening to lies in the study, however, tended to trust the outright liars more than the soft-spoken deceivers, probably because gaps in a conversation make people more uncomfortable than a stream of babble. The sinister implication is that anybody trying to lie will probably have better luck boldly stating an untruth than meekly talking around it.

There are many other ways of lying these days than simply doing so in conversation — by sending deceptive emails or text messages, embellishing an online profile or Photoshopping an Instagram image, to name just a few. There’s still little research on lying in the digital age, and how it might be changing business and culture. What is known is that Americans are becoming more skeptical and less trusting, while at the same time digital technology is becoming pervasive. Sounds like a hypothesis to be tested.

Rick Newman’s latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.

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