Five Facts About Lying

In the digital age, it’s become much easier and commonplace for people to lie. Anonymity on the internet allows us to say whatever we’d like, true or false, kind or cruel, with no consequences. And while film and television have created interesting theories about how to detect a liar, the reality is that it's hard to detect a lie, and we don’t know all that much about the phenomenon of making statements that are simply not true.

Dr. Jeff Hancock of Cornell University is an expert in the field of lying and deception. I had the opportunity to hear him speak, and he presented some fascinating facts in a talk called “The Brave New World of Lying and Deception.”  Here are five noteworthy findings:

We Do It Every Day

Humans lie, on average, about one time per day, whether that be in person, on the phone, or digitally. I was shocked to hear such a low rate, given the staggering amount of scandals and deceit we read about every day.

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The Eyes Don't Tell

People believe that studying a person’s eye movements and/or change in voice will help us detect their lies. Both of these assertions are essentially false, with voice pitch being minimally useful.

We Lie to Get a Date

Around 80% of profiles have at least one lie in one of three major categories: height, weight, and age. What do women most often lie about? Weight. How about men?  Height. No surprises there. These two variables are more likely suspects because they are more easily changeable (e.g., dieting, high heels, shoe lifts, etc.), whereas age, unless you’re using photo editing software or copious make-up, is more fixed.

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Detection Is Difficult

Humans can detect lying only 54% of the time or only slightly above chance. What is noteworthy here is that we probably aren’t really better than a coin toss at all. The reason the number is pushed upward to 54% is likely because of the small group of people who are just horrible liars that we can all detect, as well as what researchers call “wizards,” those who are successful at detecting lies more than 90% of the time. One study found only 18 wizards in 20,000 people who participated, and it’s unclear why they are able to pick out lies as well as they do.

Lies Tend to Follow a Trend

As “lying profiles” are being developed, three trends are emerging. Narratives that contain lies tend to have:

  • fewer “I” statements (which allows for a psychological distancing from the lie)
  • fewer “exception” words such as “but,” “except,” “aside from,” etc. (to decrease the complexity of the lie)
  • more negative emotion

Dr. Hancock noted this last factor is due to what he called “guilt from the leakage.” I have to wonder if the negative emotion (“Oh, the accident that caused me to be late to this job interview was just horrible”) is also a subconscious method of inducing pity or sympathy from the listener, who is then less focused on how truthful you are.

So the next time you’re watching reruns of Lie to Me keep in mind what we really know about deception and what is fictional. It might be a little less entertaining, but you’ll at least have more knowledge about the entire process.

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