Psychology Weekends: You’re Probably Bad at Spotting Liars

I am dying to find some time to sit down and write a post about the various revelations about what the National Security Agency is doing. If you don’t know what I’m talking about then you live under a rock and need to go read here and here and here IMMEDIATELY. However, my discussion of that is for another time. Right now, it’s the weekend and we’re talking psychology…and I thought it might be sort of timely to talk about lying. Given all the news coverage about spying, a post on deception seems fitting. So, let’s talk about how good we are about spotting a person telling a lie and some steps we might take to improve our personal lie-detection abilities.

For quite some time, psychologists have been looking into humans’ abilities to perceive deception. For instance, almost 20 years ago, DePaulo (1994) noted that people are generally quite bad at accurately rating the deceptiveness of other people. Participants who watched another discuss something (e.g. what they did for a living, how they felt about something, what they believed, what they knew, etc…) could not reliably determine which people were lying and which people weren’t. This same effect holds true for law enforcement; when they were pitted against untrained college students, they were no more accurate at detecting when a person was lying. Though it’s worth highlighting that law enforcement thought they were better.

Some might be quick to point out that detecting a liar requires a baseline. In other words, you need to have some knowledge of how people respond when being truthful in order to spot when they act differently (e.g. give off some sort of tell). And indeed, polygraphs are useless unless a physiological baseline can be established. Nevertheless, most people are also bad at detecting lies told by people they know well (DePaulo, 1994).

All of this is old news. Let’s talk about what you may not have heard about. The first big point to note is that there are some minor exceptions to the general rule that we’re bad at spotting lies. Consider the work of Ekman and colleagues (1999), which shows that a small number of professionals have much greater accuracy than the rest of us. The researchers gathered a large number of different law enforcement and federal personnel including members of the CIA and Secret Service. Additionally, the study compared these law enforcement agents against clinical psychologists. Interestingly enough, the authors did find that federal agents trained in detecting behavior cues (e.g. facial muscle movements) outperformed other categories and in fact had a 70% or better accuracy rate.

Ok, but let’s say you don’t have the time or money to go through lots of formal training on what types of body cues suggest potential deception. Is there anything the average joe can do to help spot a lie??

There might just be…

A fairly recent study suggests that the key may be in avoiding mimicking. You see, we very commonly will imitate the physical behaviors of people with whom we’re communicating. This is so for a variety of reasons mostly related to rapport-building. It allows us to “smooth[] interaction” and “facilitate emotional understanding” (Stel, et al., 2009: 693). However, the researches wondered if this tendency to mimic might also mask our ability to see others’ deception. To find out, they designed a study where participants were assigned to one of three categories: (1) control group, (2) do mimic the target, or (3) don’t mimic the target. Thus, half of participants received particular instruction on whether they should mimic the potential liar during a conversation while the other half received no instruction at all. Meanwhile, other participants were recruited and assigned as “targets.” They were given an opportunity to donate to a charity then later told either to be “truthful” or “dishonest” with their conversation partner about whether they decided to donate. Then the participants paired up and had 3 minute conversations where the regular participants could interact and ask questions of the target. These sessions were videotaped for analysis by the researchers.

The results showed what the authors of the study hypothesized. Participants who actively chose not to mimic the target conversation partners were more accurate at predicting if the partner was lying. This effect was true across both the experimental and control groups such that people in the control who naturally didn’t mimic their partners enjoyed the effect in the same way that participants actively choosing not to mimic did.

Additionally, there is one other option you might consider if you want to improve your own accuracy in spotting lies. Recent research suggests that creating high cognitive loads and time pressures makes it much more difficult for liars to lie well. Walczyk and colleagues tested  their “time restricted integrity confirmation (TriCon)” system of detection by using methods similar to an Implicit Attitude Test. Namely, the experimenters had participants answer questions on a laptop designed to measure how long it took participants to provide their answers. Of course, participants were told ahead of time to lie when they got to certain questions.  The basic results—though the authors’ paper gets into more depth and describes two related experiments—is that people will respond faster when they are being truthful.

The take-home point here seems to be that people under pressure will have a harder time lying. So, if you keep the heat on the person you suspect and put them under other cognitive load (e.g. multitasking while answering questions), you will probably see them take longer to answer on questions where they are not being truthful.

That’s all I have for this weekend. I should note that each of these studies presents at least a couple areas worth skepticism or criticism. In other words, aspects of the study that might properly discourage you from relying too heavily on it. While I say that much, I leave it to you to read the studies and be your own critical thinkers…I just don’t have the time to do an in-depth analysis of each one’s methods nor do you probably want that. Even still, I encourage you to read the studies yourself!

Until next time…

-Zachary Cloud


DePaulo, B.M. (1994). Spotting Lies: Can Humans Learn to Do Better? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 3, 83-86.

Ekman, P., O’Sullivan, M., & Frank, M.G. (1999). A Few Can Catch A Liar. Psychological Science, 10, 263-266.

Stel, M., van Dijk, E., & Oliver, E. (2009). You Want to Know the Truth? Then Don’t Mimic! Psychological Science, 20, 693-699.

Walczyk, J.J., Mahoney, K.T., Doverspike, D., & Griffith-Ross, D.A. (2009). Cognitive Lie Detection: Response Time and Consistency of Answers as Cues to Deception. Journal of Business and Psychology, 24, 33-49.

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