Byte of Prevention Blog

by Jay Reeves |

How To Tell If Someone Is Lying

 InspectorMost people lie now and then, and some people lie all the time.

 And even the most virtuous and ethical among us is susceptible to the occasional fib, embellishment and stretching of facts.

 Now comes scientific research that pins down the verbal cues that reveal dishonesty. Giveaways include running of the mouth, excessive use of third-person pronouns and an increase in profanity.

A growing nose may or may not apply.

These and other observations are found in Evidence for the Pinocchio Effect: Linguistic Differences Between Lies, Deceptions by Omission and Truths, penned by researchers at Harvard Business School and reviewed on the blog Working Knowledge by Carmen Nobel.

“Previous studies have examined the linguistic differences between lies and truthful statements,” writes Nobel. “But this one goes a step further to consider the differences between flat-out lying and so-called deception by omission—that is, the willful avoidance of divulging important information, either by changing the subject or by saying as little as possible.”

To gather data, researchers used something called the Ultimatum Game, which involved a pair of subjects, a pot of money, unequal access to key information, and a two-minute negotiation session in which the subjects were free to lie, evade or tell the truth in deciding how to divide the money.

As it turned out, 70 percent of subjects played the game honestly. But 30 percent either flat-out lied or engaged in deception by omission (not answering certain questions, changing the subject or giving incomplete responses).

The most surprising conclusion: being tight-lipped or evasive was far less effective than simply lying. Bald-faced liars were more likely to walk away with more money than those who tried to be coy.

“It turns out that omission may be a terrible deception strategy, said one of the researchers. “In terms of succeeding at the deception, it was more effective to outright lie. It’s a more Machiavellian strategy, but it’s more successful.”

I Only Had Two Beers … Honest!

Here are some other takeaways from the Harvard study:

  • Liars used many more words than truth tellers, in effect verbally bludgeoning adversaries into submission. The researchers dubbed this “the Pinocchio effect.”  The number of words grew like Pinocchio’s nose.
  • Subjects who engaged in deception by omission used fewer words and shorter sentences than truth tellers.
  • Liars used more swear words than truth tellers—especially if their honesty was called into question.
  • Liars used more third-person pronouns than truth tellers – a way of distancing themselves from their own lie.
  • Liars spoke in more complex sentences than either omitters or truth tellers.

My guess is that none of this will surprise experienced lawyers, who tend to be superb lie detectors.

For example, every seasoned trial lawyer knows that divorce clients who profess to be “emotionally over their ex” and harbor “no bad feelings whatsoever” are the very ones who might well slap on an adult diaper and take off across the country in a psychotic attempt to woo back their beloved.

And good lawyers know that every criminal defendant charged with DUI will tell you with a straight face – albeit one with bloodshot eyes, veined nose and a variety of disturbing tics – that they only consumed two beers on the night of their arrest. Only two. Over dinner. Honest.

But stay tuned. The Harvard prevarication profs are just getting started. They’re now studying lies and evasions in email conversations.

Jay Reeves a/k/a The Risk Man is an attorney licensed in North Carolina and South Carolina. Formerly he was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. His nose is not growing. Contact, phone 919-619-2441.


About the Author

Jay Reeves

Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina. He was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. He is the author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World, a collection of short stories from a law life well-lived, which as the seasons pass becomes less about law and liability and more about loss, love, longing, laughter and life's lasting luminescence.

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