When a guy is trying to get away with something, his gestures will betray him.
Liar Move #1: He wraps his ankle around the leg of a chair.
Busted: "Pulling off a lie is stressful, so when a guy is masking the truth, his body will tense up," says body-language expert Janine Driver. "As a result, he'll take a more rigid stance. This is also a subconscious sign of restraint. It's like he's physically fighting to hold back from telling the whole story."
Liar Move #2: He suddenly puts his hands in his pockets.
Busted: "Showing his palms indicates comfort and openness, so when he's lying, he'll instinctively feel the need to conceal them," says Patti Wood, author of Success Signals: A Guide to Reading Body Language. "He may also hide his hands behind his back or occupy them by fidgeting with an object, like his cell phone."
Liar Move #3: He shrugs one or both shoulders.
Busted: "Watch out if he does this while saying a definitive statement, like 'I didn't sleep with her,'" says Driver. "The shrug is his way of canceling out the untruth, much like crossing his fingers behind his back, except he's unaware of the motion. It's also his subconscious way of not committing to the lie and avoiding guilt."
Liar Move #4: He uses his index finger to rub just underneath his nose.
Busted: "This sign is usually exhibited by men who don't typically lie, so they feel remorse," says Wood. "Immediately after he speaks, he'll touch his face in a way that slightly hides his mouth. It's as though he can't believe what just came out of there."
So, you think you got away with that little fib? Didn't smile or fidget too much, kept eye contact? Well, think again. The truth is, you can't hide those lies.
It has been estimated that we lie to a third of the people we meet each day. Lying is especially common when people are trying to impress each other, and that's why it's so prevalent in dating and courtship. Robert Feldman, at the University of Massachusetts, found that 60 per cent of the people who took part in one of his studies lied at least once during a 10-minute meeting, and that most of them told two or three lies in that time.
Research on lying shows that there is no difference in the numbers of lies told by men and women, but that there are differences in the types they tell - men are more likely to produce lies designed to make themselves look impressive, while women are more likely to tell lies intended to make others feel good. Women are generally more inclined than men to express positive opinions, both about the things they do and don't like. Consequently, when women are faced with the possibility of upsetting someone - for example when given a present they don't want - they're more likely to try to protect the other person's feelings by telling a white lie. Lying lubricates interpersonal relations; without them, our social life would soon grind to a halt.
Although lies form a large part of our exchanges with other people, we're actually not very good at telling why someone is deceiving us or telling the truth. This isn't for lack of evidence, because 90 per cent of lies are accompanied by tells which, like a criminal's fingerprints, leave behind traces of deception.
People often pride themselves on their ability to detect if someone is lying to them, especially when they know that person well. How often have you heard a mother announce that her children could never lie to her because she "knows them too well", or a young man claim that his girlfriend could never pull the wool over his eyes because he can "see right through her"? In fact, the research on lie detection suggests that both the mother and the young man are probably mistaken, because people detect only about 56 per cent of the lies they're exposed to, which is slightly above what you'd expect by chance. It's also been discovered that as people get to know each other better, their ability to detect each other's lies doesn't improve - it sometimes gets worse.
This happens for various reasons. One is that as people get to know each other well, they become more confident that they can spot each other's lies. However, their accuracy doesn't necessarily increase - it's usually just their confidence that grows. Moreover, when people get to know each other well, they're more likely to allow their emotions to get in the way of their analytical skills. Finally, as each person gets to know what type of evidence of deceit the other person is looking for, they're able to modify their behaviour to reduce the chances of detection.
Most people believe that gaze aversion is a sign of lying. They assume that because liars feel guilty, embarrassed and apprehensive, they find it difficult to look their victim in the eye. This is not what happens. First, patterns of gaze are quite unstable - while some liars avert their eyes, others actually increase the amount of time they spend looking at the other person.
As gaze is fairly easy to control, liars can use their eyes to project an image of honesty. Knowing that other people assume gaze aversion is a sign of lying, many liars do the exact opposite - they deliberately increase their gaze to give the impression that they're telling the truth.
Another supposed sign of lying is rapid blinking. It's true that when we become aroused or our mind is racing, there's a corresponding increase in our blinking rate. Our normal rate is about 20 blinks per minute, but it can increase to four or five times that figure when we feel under pressure. When liars are searching for an answer to an awkward question, their thought processes speed up. In this kind of situation, lying is frequently associated with blinking. But we need to remember that there are times when people have a high blinking rate, not because they're lying, but because they're under pressure. Also, there are times when liars show normal rates.
Fidgeting and awkward hand movements are also thought to be signs of deceit - the assumption being that when people are lying they become agitated and this gives rise to nervous movements of the hands. There is a class of gestures called "adaptors" which consists of actions like stroking one's hair, scratching one's head or rubbing the hands together. When people tell lies they sometimes feel guilty or worried about being found out, and these concerns can cause them to produce adaptors. This tends to happen when the stakes are high or when the liar isn't very good at deception. But most of the time the exact opposite happens. Again, because liars are worried about revealing themselves, they tend to inhibit their normal gestural habits. As a result their actions are likely to become more frozen, not more animated.
Movements of the hands, like those of the eyes, tend to be under conscious control, and that's why the hands aren't a reliable source of information about lying. Video research shows that when people are asked to tell a lie they tend to produce more signs of deception in the lower rather than the upper part of the body. Legs and feet are an underrated source of information about lying. It seems that liars focus their efforts at concealment on their hands, arms and face, because they know that's what other people will be watching. Because their feet feel remote, liars don't bother about them - but it's often tiny adjustments of the legs and feet that betray them.
One gesture that reveals a lie is the "mouth-cover". When this happens, it's as if the liar is taking precautions to cover up the source of their deception, acting on the assumption that if other people can't see their mouth then they won't know where the lie has come from. Mouth-covering actions can range from full-blown versions where the hand completely covers the mouth, to gestures where the hand supports the chin and a finger surreptitiously touches the corner of the mouth.
There is, however, a substitute for touching the mouth, which is touching the nose. By touching their nose, the liar experiences the momentary comfort of covering his mouth, without any risk of drawing attention to what they are really doing. In this role, nose-touching functions as a substitute for mouth-covering. It's a stealth tell - it looks as if someone is scratching their nose, but their real intention is to cover the mouth.
There is also a school of thought that says nose-touching is a sign of deceit quite separate from anything to do with the mouth. Two proponents of this idea are Dr Alan Hirsch, of the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago, and Dr Charles Wolf, of the University of Utah. They made a detailed analysis of Bill Clinton's grand jury testimony in August 1998, when the president denied having had sex with Monica Lewinsky. They discovered that while Clinton was telling the truth he hardly touched his nose at all, but that when he lied about the affair, he touched his nose once every four minutes on average.
Hirsch called this the "Pinocchio syndrome", after the character whose wooden nose becomes longer every time he tells a lie. Hirsch suggested that when people lie their nose becomes engorged with blood, and that this produces a sensation that is alleviated by touching or rubbing the nose.
When someone knowingly tells a lie they have to hide two things - first the truth, and second any emotions that might arise out of their attempts at concealment. The emotions that liars feel are generally negative - guilt or fear of being found out - but liars can also experience the thrill of pulling the wool over other people's eyes, what Paul Ekman, a psychology professor at the University of California, has called "duping delight".
When people tell small, innocuous lies they usually don't feel any negative emotions. However, when they're telling big lies, and there's a lot at stake, they often experience very powerful negative emotions that need to be concealed if the lie is to remain hidden. A negative emotion can be concealed by turning away the head, by covering the face with the hands, or by masking it with a neutral or a positive emotion.
The strategies of turning away and covering the face don't always work because they tend to draw attention to what the liar is trying to conceal. Masking, on the other hand, enables liars to present an exterior that isn't necessarily connected with lying.
The most commonly used masks are the "straight face" and the smile. The straight face requires the least effort - in order to mask their negative emotions, all the liar needs to do is put their face into repose. The smile is potentially more effective as a mask because it suggests that the person is feeling happy and contented - in other words, experiencing emotions that one doesn't normally associate with lying.
If you ask people how to spot a liar, they often mention smiling. They'll tell you that when someone is lying they're more likely to use a smile to mask their true feelings. However, research on lying shows it's the other way round - people who are lying smile less than those who are telling the truth. It seems to be that liars occasionally adjust their behaviour so that it's the opposite to what everyone expects of people who are telling a lie. This doesn't mean that liars have abandoned smiling - it simply shows that they smile less than people who are telling the truth. When dissemblers do smile they often give themselves away by producing a counterfeit smile. There are several identifying features of counterfeit smiles:
Duration. They are sustained for much longer than genuine smiles.
Assembly. They are "put together" more rapidly than genuine smiles. They are also dismantled more quickly.
Location. They tend to be confined to the lower half of the face.
Symmetry. Genuine smiles appear on both sides of the face, whereas counterfeits sometimes appear more strongly on one side of the face (usually the right side).
Most people believe that liars give themselves away by what they do, rather than what they say or how they say it. In fact, it's the other way round - the best indicators of lying are to be found in people's speech. Aldert Vrij, a psychology professor at Britain's Portsmouth University, suggests that when people try to catch liars they pay too much attention to their non-verbal behaviour and not enough to speech. This, he points out, is reflected in the tendency to overestimate the chances of detecting deceit by watching someone's behaviour, and to underestimate the chances of catching liars by listening to what they say. Several features of speech provide clues to lying:
Circumlocution. Liars often beat about the bush. They tend to give long-winded explanations with lots of digressions, but when they're asked a question they're likely to give a short answer.
Outlining. Liars' explanations are painted with broad brushstrokes, with very little attention to detail. For example, a liar will tell you that they went for a pizza, but probably won't tell you where or what kind.
Smokescreens. Liars often produce answers designed to confuse - they sound as if they make sense, but they don't. Examples include Clinton's response during the Paula Jones harassment case, when he was asked about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky: "That depends on what the meaning of 'is' is."
Negatives. Political lies are frequently couched as denials - remember Clinton's famous: "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky." And during the Watergate scandal, Richard Nixon said, "I am not a crook." He didn't say, "I am an honest man."
Word Choice. Liars use words like "I", "me" and "mine" less frequently than people who are telling the truth.
Disclaimers. Liars are more likely to use disclaimers such as "You won't believe this", "I know this sounds strange, but" and "Let me assure you".
Formality. When people are telling the truth in an informal situation they are more likely to use an elided form - for example, to say "don't" instead of "do not". Someone who is telling a lie in the same situation is more likely to say "do not" instead of "don't". That's because people become more tense and formal when they lie.
Tense. Without realising it, liars have a tendency to increase the psychological distance between themselves and the event they're describing. As we have seen, one way they do this is by their choice of words. Another is by using the past rather than the present tense.
Speed. Telling a lie requires a lot of mental work because, in addition to constructing a credible line, the liar needs to keep the truth separated from the lie. This places demands on the capacities of the liar, which in turn can slow them down. That's why people pause before producing a lie, and why lies tend to be delivered at a slower pace than the truth.
Illustration from Clyde Mendes column at MetroSexual LA