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Liar Liar Pants on Fire: How to Spot a Lie

A few days ago I wrote a blog about why people lie. Today, I’d like to discuss how to tell if someone is lying.

First of all, the detection of a lie is not an exact science. And people with lots of practice lying can become pretty hard to detect. In fact, some liars believe that they are so talented that they are invincible (but that’s another blog). Nevertheless, there are some clues to watch for when you suspect that someone is lying. There are no single accurate lie detectors. In order to catch a lie, you must consider a series of behaviors that involve looking, hearing, and feeling.

The first set of clues relate to how the person is looking and acting. Eye contact is thought to be the easiest way to detect lying. When people lie, they tend to have difficulty maintaining normal eye contact. They may look to the left, down, or off to the side. Some skillful liars look right at the person they are lying to because they are so confident that they can get away with it. The bottom line is that eye contact is off—either too little, off center, or too much.

7 Comments to
Liar Liar Pants on Fire: How to Spot a Lie

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  1. I think it would be more helpful if you were more explicit about how to interpret these behaviors in the context of a specific session or client. You’ve described the behaviors of many a truthful client who might just be anxious, embarrassed, or otherwise traumatized. These aren’t useful indicators in and of themselves.

  2. So what is new????

  3. If they go by that criteria, everyone I speak to will think I’m lying. You’ve pretty much described my interpersonal style.

    I’ve also failed a lie detector test. I passed on whether I stole money, but failed on whether I knew who was stealing money. I didn’t know who was stealing money. I didn’t even know that money was being stolen, until the lie detector test suggested it. People don’t tend to confess their felonies to me. I don’t know what caused my anxiety at the question. Maybe it upset me to think that someone was stealing money. Maybe I was scrolling through my memories.

    Perhaps these things just indicate discomfort. People can feel discomfort even if they aren’t lying. They could be anxious. They could even have a full bladder. It’s troubling to me that there’s this idea that people can infer why someone is uncomfortable from the fact that they are uncomfortable. It is layering interpretation onto fact, and considering the result “fact”. It’s not fact.

    It’s also troubling to me to think that people will read my social anxiety as evidence of lying. That tends to make me feel even more anxious.

  4. Great comments. And so true. Anxiety can look a lot like the discomfort of lying. That’s why lie detection is not considered a science. At the same time, if these signs are taken together in context, they can be helpful in the interpretation of someone’s story. Giving specific training into detectings lies would be quite complex and be of variable effectiveness. It’s best to consider everything as tentative hypotheses until other evidence confirms or disputes what you are hearing

  5. Dinah: You make some interesting points and many of them are true. Reading body language can be challenging, it is something I’ve had a difficult time with even as a clinician (or therapist). Body language can take the form of many other things such as nervousness, anxiety, social phobias or social anxiety, shyness, etc.
    Individuals who are fidgeting and not giving eye contact aren’t always lying. In fact, lack of eye contact, fidgeting, or other bodily movements can signal cultural influence. Hispanics or Latino/a’s tend to give little eye contact and Native American Indians tend to be very quiet. Both of these things can signal lying and dishonesty or simply cultural influence.

    Essentially, it is important to use proper judgment, discernment, and knowledge when assessing body language and potential lying.

    It is unsettling to think that if one displays certain things that they may be deemed a liar or distrustful. It is always best to discern the behavior first in its proper context and to know whether that person’s behavior is characteristic or uncharacteristic of who they usually are.


  6. You don’t say how these behaviors associated w/lying, which are also the behaviors of those who are anxious or have OCD, can be confused with behaviors of someone who is anxious and has OCD, and hence lead to someone who is telling the truth being accused of lying.

  7. Now take all these behaviours and apply them to a psychotic.

    The psychotic will likely behave exactly like this.

    She’ll avoid eye contact, because she’s afraid. (More likely, she’s scared senseless.)

    She’ll be fidgety – or not move at all, and her posture may be very awkward.

    She may talk in a hurry (and most likely not make much sense), or she may talk slowly and hesitate a lot because she is distracted by her hallucinations.

    She may mess up her grammar and be only too eager to change the subject, because she’s afraid the voices will punish her for blabbing.

    Her answers may be very vague indeed.

    An on top of this, you’ll most certainly have the feeling that her story doesn’t match up at all. In fact, their story is definitely not an accurate representation of reality. Yet, the psychotic is not lying. It’s just that she lives in a different ‘reality’ from other people.

  8. Great points…which is why we are never 100% accurate in our interpretations. We bring in context, culture, history, education, and guts into our experience and tread lightly always willing to change directions.

  9. HAH,
    I have anxiety so I have trouble making eye contact. Does that mean I’M a liar?

  10. No. Not at all. We have to take these signs as only possibilities–certainly not absolutes. Thanks

  11. what words are there is there only Liar Liar Pant on fire,Liar Liar Sacrificer.. what else..


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