How to Recognize the Signs That Someone Is Lying

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Lying and deception are common human behaviors. Until relatively recently, there has been little actual research into just how often people lie. A 2004 Reader's Digest poll found that as many as 96% of people admit to lying at least sometimes.

One national study published in 2009 surveyed 1,000 U.S. adults and found that 60% of respondents claimed that they did not lie at all. Instead, the researchers found that about half of all lies were told by just 5% of all the subjects. The study suggests that while prevalence rates may vary, there likely exists a small group of very prolific liars.

The reality is that most people will probably lie from time to time. Some of these lies are little white lies intended to protect someone else’s feelings (“No, that shirt does not make you look fat!”). In other cases, these lies can be much more serious (like lying on a resume) or even sinister (covering up a crime).​

signs that someone is lying
Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin

Lying Can Be Hard to Detect

People are surprisingly bad at detecting lies. One study, for example, found that people were only able to accurately detect lying 54% of the time in a lab setting—hardly impressive when factoring in a 50% detection rate by pure chance alone.

Clearly, behavioral differences between honest and lying individuals are difficult to discriminate and measure. Researchers have attempted to uncover different ways of detecting lies. While there may not be a simple, tell-tale sign that someone is dishonest (like Pinocchio’s nose), researchers have found a few helpful indicators.​

Like many things, though, detecting a lie often comes down to one thing—trusting your instincts. By knowing what signs might accurately detect a lie and learning how to heed your own gut reactions, you may be able to become better at spotting falsehoods.

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Signs of Lying

Psychologists have utilized research on body language and deception to help members of law enforcement distinguish between the truth and lies. Researchers at UCLA conducted studies on the subject in addition to analyzing 60 studies on deception in order to develop recommendations and training for law enforcement. The results of their research were published in the American Journal of Forensic Psychiatry.

Red Flags That Someone May Be Lying

A few of the potential red flags the researchers identified that might indicate that people are deceptive include:

  • Being vague; offering few details
  • Repeating questions before answering them
  • Speaking in sentence fragments
  • Failing to provide specific details when a story is challenged
  • Grooming behaviors such as playing with hair or pressing fingers to lips

Lead researcher R. Edward Geiselman suggests that while detecting deception is never easy, quality training can improve a person's ability to detect lies:

"Without training, many people think they can detect deception, but their perceptions are unrelated to their actual ability. Quick, inadequate training sessions lead people to over-analyze and to do worse than if they go with their gut reactions."

Tips for Identifying Lying

If you suspect that someone might not be telling the truth, there are a few strategies you can use that might help distinguish fact from fiction.

Don't Rely on Body Language Alone

When it comes to detecting lies, people often focus on body language “tells,” or subtle physical and behavioral signs that reveal deception. While body language cues can sometimes hint at deception, research suggests that many expected behaviors are not always associated with lying.

Researcher Howard Ehrlichman, a psychologist who has been studying eye movements since the 1970s, has found that eye movements do not signify lying at all. In fact, he suggests that shifting eyes mean that a person is thinking, or more precisely, that he or she is accessing their long-term memory.

Other studies have shown that while individual signals and behaviors are useful indicators of deception, some of the ones most often linked to lying (such as eye movements) are among the worst predictors. So while body language can be a useful tool in the detection of lies, the key is to understand which signals to pay attention to.

Focus On the Right Signals

One meta-analysis found that while people do often rely on valid cues for detecting lies, the problem might lie with the weakness of these cues as deception indicators in the first place.

Some of the most accurate deception cues that people do pay attention to include:

  • Being vague: If the speaker seems to intentionally leave out important details, it might be because they are lying.
  • Vocal uncertainty: If the person seems unsure or insecure, they are more likely to be perceived as lying.
  • Indifference: Shrugging, lack of expression, and a bored posture can be signs of lying since the person is trying to avoid conveying emotions and possible tells.
  • Overthinking: If the individual seems to be thinking too hard to fill in the details of the story, it might be because they are deceiving you.

The lesson here is that while body language may be helpful, it is important to pay attention to the right signals. However, some experts suggest that relying too heavily on certain signals may impair the ability to detect lies.

Ask Them to Tell Their Story in Reverse

Lie detection can be seen as a passive process. People may assume they can just observe the potential liar’s body language and facial expressions to spot obvious “tells.” In taking a more active approach to uncovering lies, you can yield better results.​

Some research has suggested that asking people to report their stories in reverse order rather than chronological order can increase the accuracy of lie detection. Verbal and non-verbal cues that distinguish between lying and truth-telling may become more apparent as cognitive load increases.

Lying is more mentally taxing than telling the truth. If you add even more cognitive complexity, behavioral cues may become more apparent.

Not only is telling a lie more cognitively demanding, but liars typically exert much more mental energy toward monitoring their behaviors and evaluating the responses of others. They are concerned with their credibility and ensuring that other people believe their stories. All this takes a considerable amount of effort, so if you throw in a difficult task (like relating their story in reverse order), cracks in the story and other behavioral indicators might become easier to spot.

In one study, 80 mock suspects either told the truth or lied about a staged event. Some of the individuals were asked to report their stories in reverse order while others simply told their stories in chronological order. The researchers found that the reverse order interviews revealed more behavioral clues to deception.

In a second experiment, 55 police officers watched taped interviews from the first experiment and were asked to determine who was lying and who was not. The investigation revealed that law enforcement officers were better at detecting lies in the reverse order interviews than they were in the chronological interviews.

Trust Your Instincts

Your immediate gut reactions might be more accurate than any conscious lie detection you might attempt. In one study, researchers had 72 participants watch videos of interviews with mock crime suspects. Some of these suspects had stolen a $100 bill from off a bookshelf while others had not, yet all of the suspects were told to tell the interviewer that they had not taken the money.

Similar to previous studies, the participants were unable to consistently detect lies, only accurately identifying the liars 43% of the time and the truth-tellers 48% of the time.

But the researchers also utilized implicit behavioral reaction time tests to assess the participants' more automatic and unconscious responses to the suspects. What they discovered was that the subjects were more likely to unconsciously associate words like "dishonest" and "deceitful" with the suspects that were actually lying. They were also more likely to implicitly associate words like "valid" and "honest" with the truth-tellers.

The results suggest that people may have an unconscious, intuitive idea about whether someone is lying.

So if our gut reactions might be more accurate, why are people not better at identifying dishonesty? Conscious responses might interfere with our automatic associations. Instead of relying on our instincts, people focus on the stereotypical behaviors that they often associate with lying such as fidgeting and lack of eye contact. Overemphasizing behaviors that unreliably predict deceptions makes it more difficult to distinguish between truth and lies.

A Word From Verywell

The reality is that there is no universal, surefire sign that someone is lying. All of the signs, behaviors, and indicators that researchers have linked to lying are simply clues that might reveal whether a person is being forthright.

Next time you are trying to gauge the veracity of an individual's story, stop looking at the clichéd “lying signs” and learn how to spot more subtle behaviors that might be linked to deception. When necessary, take a more active approach by adding pressure and make telling the lie more mentally taxing by asking the speaker to relate the story in reverse order.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, trust your instincts. You might have a great intuitive sense of honesty versus dishonesty. Learn to heed those gut feelings.

11 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.