How to Spot Signs of Lying

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There are many cartoons filled with dark humor about the guy who’s “gonna call” the woman he just met, to ask her for a date. They often show a dust-covered skeleton covered in cobwebs and holding a phone. Similar fare makes fun of business people waiting for promised calls. Job applicants know the feeling well. So do parents who wonder how their children learned to lie so creatively. What’s going on?

Kids Can be Crafty Liars

People lie for an endless supply of reasons. Younger children aren’t sure how to differentiate between truth and fiction. They experiment with made-up scenarios to test them and the bounds of reality. They also want to stay out of trouble. That’s why they describe scenarios that are hard to believe or to verify. It’s also why they won’t plead guilty to stealing more dessert, someone’s toy or wetting the bed. Someone else did that. Don’t those wide, cute eyes convince you so?

The truth is that little ones lie to experiment with role playing, and to deal with stress. Toddlers, teens and tweens lie to stay out of trouble. If they struggle to master specific tasks they might offer cover up stories such as denying that their grades are poor. They’ll deny that doing well at physical education class matters, and that they aren’t clumsy, careless or irresponsible when it comes to breaking things. They’ll even scoff that they weren’t supposed to do assigned chores. Comments such as “The teacher says ‘I’m trying and it shows,’” or “Who cares?” fill the air as the child defends him or herself against unmet demands. The frequent “The dog broke/ate it, not me” is an effort not to upset the person who wanted that item preserved. What about undone chores? That “He/she was supposed to do it, instead of me” argument could be the sign of an internal struggle about living up to someone’s expectations, not a desire to be untruthful.

The most compassionate thing that adults can do in those circumstances is to simply state the unmet need, the difficulty of the physical demands, that there’s the damaged item to be dealt with or an undone task to be completed. Accusations don’t turn into soothing messages that it’s safe to tell the truth. Objective statements do. So do invitations to think of solutions. They let children mature as they figure out how to accept and how to live up to responsibility.

Adult Liars

Older people have cunning reasons for their untruths. Telling white lies is an effort to protect someone’s feelings despite harsh truths. People of every age tell white lies to protect their own reputations and feelings or someone else’s, even their safety. It’s important to balance white lies with blunt reality checks, though, so that everyone involved can be certain of what’s actually going on, or not happening. Harmful lying is another matter.

Intentional, harmful lying is for manipulating people or situations in the liar’s favor. Ill-gotten gain or other advantages are often the liar’s goal.. An entirely different set of emotional and mental health issues are at play with harmful lies and liars. Quite unlike the made-up stories that don’t promote harm and are usually told by younger people and “white” liars, willful lies endanger people. When harmful lies are the daily fare of someone’s conversation, it is a pathological problem and hard to solve. Surviving such lies is quite complicated, emotionally and physically exhausting.

People need to protect themselves from pathological liars, a mental health issue in all directions. Human resource personnel hiring employees, bankers and private firms trusting people with money, appliances, etc. need to know that the people in their midst are trustworthy. Figuring out who’s a liar, and a frequent liar at that, means that you need to know what to do to prevent or to minimize harm. Here’s a quick though not comprehensive How-To for recognizing liars in action:

Distractors. Liars who keep changing the topic of discussion or their emotions confuse their listeners, who then let down their guard while sorting out distracting details. Too many and unrelated details unravel a person’s focus on important issues. That disproportional, overly informative response is helpful to someone trying to deceive another person. Watch out for rhetorical questions, too, when a liar asks themselves questions such as “Now what was I doing then?” and “Am I supposed to tell you…?” Notice if the questions leave you uncomfortable. Trust your instincts that truth is not part of the person’s moral vocabulary.

In the event that you suspect someone of guilt and he or she implies that you or another person are guilty, decline to go on the guilt trip. It’s a detour from the truth.

Eye Contact Breakers. Liars who turn their faces away from yours might be trying to think up their next deceptive remark. Or, they might be afraid to look you in the eye and reveal their deceptive intent. Ask to look into the person’s face, or try to. If that doesn’t improve things, consider the possibility that you’re being lied to.

Fake smilers. Liars smile with their mouths, but no crinkles show up around their eyes. They would in an honest person’s smile. Look for smile lines around the speaker’s eyes.

If a person smiles too much, especially when they’re denying responsibility for some problem – especially for objectionable behavior, they might be revealing guilt. Contrite people do not smile when discussing their role in problematic situations. The problem has been cited in people who’ve murdered their children, and performed other crimes. They smile as they attempt to con the public or law enforcement personnel. The sometimes suppressed grin or blatant leak of joy while discussing distressing matters is called “Duping Delight.”

Mental health and law enforcement professionals are aware of a “Duping delight” smile typical of deceivers. It indicates their sense of success and satisfaction at having manipulated someone. A subtle movement of the facial muscles not used in other situations, a duping delight smile appears at inappropriate moments. Psychologist Dr Paul Ekman coined the term after studying emotions and facial expressions. You can see demonstrations of a duping delight smile here (1:50) and here.

Grabbers. Liars sometimes grab the intended victim’s wrist, arm, face, or shoulder so that they can better succeed with their lies. The pretense of physical intimacy is not a sign of trust, it is a gesture for turning the victim into a captive audience. Feeling startled or unhappy at being in someone’s grip is an important alert. Your instincts might be warning you that the person is lying.

Starers. Liars tend to widen their eyes and/or to stare intently into yours as they try to imply honesty and mutual trust. The intense look is overkill, and it’s for a deceptive reason. Break the eye contact and then look back at the person. If you feel uncomfortable with the person, perhaps you should be.

Listen to Pamela Myer’s presentation about how to spot liars for more clues about how to deal with them.

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Yocheved Golani

Yocheved Golani

Yocheved Golani is a popular writer whose byline has appeared worldwide in print and online. Originally from Michigan, USA and based in Beer Sheva, Israel, she speaks fluent American English and Hebrew. Yocheved’s doctor-recommended self-help book EMPOWER Yourself to Cope with a Medical Challenge helps readers worldwide to build inner strengths and to overcome setbacks. A certified Health Information Management professional, she is a member of Get Help Israel. Certified in Spiritual Chaplaincy (End of Life issues) and in counseling skills, her life coaching for ill people puts healthy perspective into a clients’ success plan for achieving desired goals. Yocheved has been a featured speaker at a Nefesh Israel mental health professional’s convention and in other forums.

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