We like to think of ourselves and others as generally honest people. But the truth is we lie a lot more than you might expect.
One study conducted by University of Massachusetts psychologist Robert S. Feldman found that 60% of people lied at least once during a 10-minute conversation, telling an average of two to three lies. Participants lied more when they were told to appear likeable and competent.
Pamela Meyer, founder and CEO of Calibrate — a company that provides deception detection training — sorts lies into two categories: offensive and defensive. Offensive lies are told to gain something: a reward, an advantage over a person or a situation, or admiration from others. Defensive lies, on the other hand, are told to protect the liar or another person (hey, not all lies are self-seeking!) from embarrassment, punishment or harm, or to avoid an awkward social situation.
“We misunderstand motivation for lying and often judge liars too harshly,” Meyer told HuffPost. “The word ‘liar’ is a trigger for finger-pointing and moral superiority. Lying, however, is part of the human experience.”
So how do you know if someone is lying to your face? And what do you do if they are? Experts share what to look for and how to handle a potential confrontation.
We’re Actually Not Very Good At Detecting Lies
Studies have shown that we only get it right a little over half the time. That’s just slightly better than your odds if you guessed. And why is that? The “signs” we’ve been taught to look for — like fidgeting or avoiding eye contact — aren’t actually strong, evidence-based indicators.
“The cues that people normally rely on are based on wives’ tales or social stereotypes — that liars tend to avoid your gaze, or they tend to act nervous or they tell stories that are very abstract with few details,” University of Texas at Austin communications professor Matthew McGlone, who has taught courses on deception, previously told Vice.
In reality, lie detection is “enormously complex,” Meyer said.
“There are no singular signs, regardless of what others might suggest. You cannot look at someone and say, ‘He’s tapping his foot, I know he is lying.’ It is not a parlour trick,” she said. “That said, there are ways to approach a possible liar that will elicit the truth, and there are ways to think about lying that will inform your view.”
“The word ‘liar’ is a trigger for finger-pointing and moral superiority. Lying, however, is part of the human experience.”
– Pamela Meyer, founder and CEO of Calibrate
One way to do that? Increase the person’s cognitive load. Lying while trying to appear calm and truthful is taxing; it requires a ton of mental energy. You can use that to your advantage.
“When you are trying to think what to say, act composed, appear spontaneous, the load on your cognitive system is high,” Meyer said. “It’s as if many wheels are already turning in your head as you try to process in real time how to present yourself and what to say.”
For example, a liar may have fabricated and rehearsed a story to cover their lie. But if you ask them to tell that story out of chronological order, it’s likely to trip them up.
“Think not about tells and more about the load,” Meyer said.
Another way to go about this, as Edward Geiselman, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, told The New York Times, is to solicit additional details using phrases like, “Tell me more about that,” as the person recounts their story. Open-ended questions will apply more pressure to their already-heavy cognitive load.
Should You Confront A Liar?
Now let’s say you’ve caught someone in a lie — or at least you’re fairly certain the person isn’t telling the truth. What do you do? As you might expect, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach here.
Meyer, for one, said she rarely recommends directly confronting someone on their lie. Instead she suggests gathering information, trying to understand the other person’s perspective and staying curious about their motives.
She offered one hypothetical workplace scenario in which a certain employee was the only person working the night a computer was stolen from the office. Say this person denies knowing anything about the missing equipment. Instead of accusing them of lying, you’d approach the conversation from a place of empathetic curiosity.
“Give them the benefit of the doubt and signal you are on their side. ‘It must have been so weird to be in the office by yourself that night. Do you like working late?’ You’d be surprised how much more you will learn when you signal that you are curious and not judgmental,” she said.
Other times, you may want to confront the suspected liar on the spot in a more direct manner. To determine if this is the right approach, consider a few factors first, said Tiana Frazier, an associate marriage and family therapist at Millennial Life Counselling: Your relationship to the other person (is it someone you know well that you feel safe with?), the content of the lie (is it something small or something you might need more time to look into or process?), the setting you’re in (are you in public or do you have privacy?) and the emotional space you and the other person are in.
“Safety is always the number one thing to assess for when confronting someone,” Frazier said. “If you believe that it is unsafe to speak out, I would recommend you do not confront someone.”
Assuming that safety is not an issue, the best way to confront someone is to speak with them in person — not via text or phone call — and privately, Frazier said. If you do it in front of others, the person is likely to get embarrassed, which can trigger defensiveness.
Take into account, too, your emotional state and that of the other person. You may be tempted to confront them right then and there. But if you’re too upset or fired up, it may be better to table the conversation. Sometimes it’s better to wait until cooler heads can prevail.
“My recommendation is to confront the person who is lying when both parties are in a calm enough space to have a discussion about it,” Frazier said. “Moreover, both parties need to be in a space where they can be receptive of the other person’s thoughts and feelings.”
When you decide to broach the subject, it’s good to be assertive but say your piece in a respectful, rather than accusatory, tone. Use “I” statements (“I felt hurt when …”) that keep the focus on your feelings, rather than “you” statements (“You’re so full of crap …”) that place blame. Avoid using generalizing words like “always” or “never” that paint with too broad a brush and attack the other person’s character. Rather, stay focused on the specific situation at hand.
Here’s an example of what you might say, according to Frazier: “I feel sad right now because you just said you were at home alone. But I learned earlier from an Instagram story that you are actually hanging out with your friends. I feel this way because I truly value honesty in a relationship.”
And know that resorting to name-calling and telling the other person they’re a liar is a surefire way to escalate the conversation into a full-blown argument.
Meyer also underscored the importance of coming from a place of compassion rather than hostility if you decide to confront someone with a lie.
“Let them know how it made you feel. Explain to them that you were disappointed, but don’t wag your finger in moral superiority,” she said. “Life is too short for that. You can always move onward and upward.”
We’ve all been there: Somehow, you’ve found yourself in a conversation with a person you have nothing in common with, someone who intimidates you or someone who won’t stop complaining. These kinds of interactions can be uncomfortable, to say the least. Our HuffPost series How to Talk to Just About Anyone will help you navigate these conversations and others. Go here for all the latest.