17 October 2017Last updated

Features | People

How to spot a liar

We have all been exposed to it – a colleague who claims that terrible traffic was the reason he was late to work, or the friend who says a jacket fits us perfectly when it is clearly a size too big. What makes people economical with the truth? Christine Fieldhouse finds out

Christine Fieldhouse
25 Nov 2016 | 12:00 am
  • Source:Phocal Media Image 1 of 3
  • Dr Rose Logan

    Source:Supplied Image 2 of 3
  • Becki Houlston

    Source:Supplied Image 3 of 3

We’ve all been on the receiving end of a lie – it could have been the time someone said they liked our outfit but they actually think it makes us look ill and three sizes larger than usual; or when partners say they’ve been working late while they’ve been out on the town with their pals.

At work it would have been when our bosses told us they have put us forward for promotion when they’ve no intention of doing so, or our colleagues saying they didn’t get back to us because our emails went to their spam folder. Our friends claim they’re late for our cinema trip because the traffic was bad. Even our children fib and deny that they ate the last biscuit or hit their baby brother.

According to research published in the Journal of Basic and Applied Psychology, we’re lied to more than 100 times per day on average, and while some of those untruths are innocuous and leave us shrugging our shoulders, questioning why a person felt the need to lie about their qualifications or their income, others can be crushing and even life-changing. Often we don’t even realise we’re on the receiving end of a lie and we may not find out until much later, if ever, that we’ve been deceived.

Dr Rose Logan, clinical psychologist at The LightHouse Arabia in Dubai, explains, ‘Lies can come from all aspects of our lives so we may be inadvertently or unknowingly exposed to more lies than we are immediately aware of. If we’re exposed to lies from our family, friends, colleagues, media and other sources of information, then the numbers soon add up.

‘In essence, a white lie such as “I like your dress” or “Your e-mail went to my spam folder” is the same as a much bigger lie, because they’re all statements that are believed to be false and which are designed to deceive.

‘But it’s important to consider the intention behind a lie, rather than the size of it, to see the difference. A white lie can protect someone or spare them negative emotion and it can be the product of positive intentions – to make someone feel better about themselves, for example.’

People, the doctor says, ‘may tell a white lie to avoid punishment, to curry favour, to make themselves look more important, or to make personal gains.’

But Dr Logan stresses the danger of bigger lies.

‘Sometimes, people lie to protect themselves from legal consequences. Lies that are designed to hurt or defame a person can lead to unimaginable harm, and lies proffered by an authority or power figure or group, for example, can lead to exclusion, loss of rights, persecution, violence and even war. There are also lies that become so paramount they make individuals behave in ways they wouldn’t do otherwise.’

But before you panic and decide never to trust another person again, take heart. According to stress and body language expert Becki Houlston, liars often exhibit tell-tale clues. ‘It could be a little twitch or a glance in a certain direction, or it might be the words they choose or the way they tell their story that could signal deception,’ she says.

So how can you spot a person when he’s being economical with the truth? Dr Logan and Becki tell us the
10 signs that can give the game away.

1. Liars avoid meeting you in person

If you suspect you’re the target of a lie by email or on the phone, ask to meet in person. People who aren’t truthful tend to use avoidance techniques – it’s easier to phone or email to say you’re sick than to go into the office in person, look your manager in the eye and say you’re unwell, when you’re really planning a day off shopping. 
Dr Logan says: ‘Liars fear their body language will betray them or they’ll find it harder to handle their guilt when they’re lying to someone in the flesh.’

2. Liars give lots of detail when it isn’t necessary

When we’re genuinely late for an appointment, we may say we’re sorry and give a brief general reason, but liars go into elaborate detail because they think that will make them appear truthful. Becki explains: ‘Instead of saying they got up late and couldn’t drag themselves away from social media, liars talk about bumper-to-bumper traffic, how every light en route was red, and on and on. 
They concoct a story to justify their behaviour, but because they’re making it up as they go along, they get embroiled in detail, such as when their cold started, how the cough keeps them awake at night, what the doctor said last week and what they said to their mum about being ill.’

3. Liars keep to strict chronological order

When we tell the truth, our minds jump around, filling in the gaps as and when we remember details. But someone who is making up a story often practises the timeline over and over in their own minds, so when they come to lie, they recite it almost parrot-fashion in a very neat and tidy chronological way. ‘Providing a strict timeline makes it easier to remember a lie,’ says Dr Logan.

4. Liars have a tell-tale habit

Whether it’s an intake of breath or a little scratch of their nose, a liar often follows a lie with a gesture.

Becki explains, ‘When someone doesn’t really believe what they’re saying, they might sniff immediately afterwards. It can be a tiny gesture – often just a little puff of air. They may have a little muscle tic in their cheek, or they could scratch their nose or ear, but the key is they do it immediately after lying, almost as an add-on to the sentence and it’s usually not something they can control.’

5. Liars don’t answer questions directly

If you ask a liar a direct question, they often answer a different question entirely just to distract you. So if you ask your partner what they did after work, they’ll start telling you what a fantastic restaurant their boss took them to at lunchtime, and how you must go there together at the weekend. ‘They offer elusive, general or circumspect responses that allow them wiggle room if they’re caught out,’ says Dr Logan. ‘They can say it wasn’t really a lie because they never actually said it.’ Becki adds they buy time by asking you a question such as: ‘Why do you need to know that?’

6. Liars pause a lot

When someone is hiding something, they hesitate. Becki believes they’re using these short spaces of time to buy time whilst they make up their story. ‘If what they’re telling you is true, they don’t need time to get their facts right. But if they’re making it up as they go along, you’ll hear lots of pauses while they construct something in their head. They’ll say ‘errrr’ a lot.’

7. Liars create confrontation

If someone is backed into a corner over a lie, they’ll try to provoke an argument to change the subject and, before you know it, you’ll be no further forward with an explanation about why they didn’t call you from their conference, but you’ll have been drawn into a big row about how you spent too long at your mother’s at the weekend and neglected family time. ‘They turn it around,’ says Becki, ‘to divert your attention from their lie, and hopefully get them off the hook.’

8. Liars stonewall you

This is a tactic often used by criminals and people who don’t want to give anything away at all – they don’t say anything. ‘They literally pull the shutters down,’ says Becki. ‘You can’t get the truth from nothing. By saying: ‘No comment!’ they’re not giving away any body language clues because it puts them in neutral.’

9. Liars blush or sweat

When we lie, our hearts beat faster because we sense danger and the change in temperature makes us perspire or blush, says Becki. ‘Next time you suspect someone isn’t being entirely truthful, look closely at their complexion and you might well see a pink glow about their face, or try shaking their hand – you might find they’re quite clammy.’

10. Liars move their eyes

Becki explains that when we’re recalling a memory, if we don’t maintain eye contact, we look to one side, but when we’re making something up, we look to the opposite side. ‘This happens because we go to different parts of our brain to get bits of information,’ she says. ‘Usually people who are lying look to their top right, whilst those who are remembering something that’s true look to the top left.’ But she warns these directions could vary from person to person.

How to deal with a liar

So once we’ve identified that we’re being told a lie, what can we do about it? Start by asking yourself why the person is lying in the first place, suggests Dr Logan. ‘Sometimes it’s natural to lie. If a child is playing with a ball in the house, which isn’t allowed, and they knock a picture frame off a shelf and it smashes, they know their mum is going to be angry so they blame the dog. Let them know that lying isn’t the best choice and why honesty is a value you’d like them to develop. Let them know that even if they’ve told a lie or made a mistake, by telling the truth they’re starting a process of repair.’

The next stage is to ask yourself if the lie is important to you. Dr Logan says, ‘If it’s a friend or colleague who you’re not that close to, you may decide to say nothing or move away from that friendship. But if it’s someone closer, you may want to confront them with what you know and explore why they felt the need to lie to you.’

Becki says, ‘Ask some good quality questions and stay focused. If your boyfriend says he was working late, and you know he’s lying because you phoned the office and were told he’d left three hours earlier, ask him where he was and why he felt the need to lie. It might be he just fancied seeing his friends for an evening but felt guilty because he hadn’t seen much of you recently.’

Christine Fieldhouse

Christine Fieldhouse