Questions about lying

Have any of you ever taken a lie detection test of any kind? (Polygraph or written q & a or some other kind of test I have not read about yet.) If so would you care to tell me about it? Feel free to be anonymous in the comments if you’d prefer.

And more generally: for those of you who have told lies and gotten away with it—what’s your method?

Do any of you believe you have the ability to tell when someone else is lying? Is it a general ability or just with people you know well?

Can any of you recommend any good non-fiction articles and books about lying? Most of what I’ve found so far has been deeply underwhelming.


And thanks for all the fabbie fairy responses. It was mucho gratifying to see that quite a few of your fairies are already in How To Ditch Your Fairy.


  1. Malcolm Tredinnick on #

    From my bottomless pit of links I’ve collected over time, I can produce this one from a 2002 Malcolm Gladwell article (there’s a PDF download on the site if you want it to look like the New Yorker). Also, this one by the guy discussed in the Gladwell article.

  2. Katerate on #

    I never lie for any sort of big issue, but when I DO lie, I try to be convincing, have a bold tone in my voice (like I know exactly what I’m talking about) and have an unfaltering expression. No tics or small gestures (apparently if you touch your nose while talking, you start blinking more often, or start tapping your foot or something, it’s an indicator that you’re lying).

  3. Ted Lemon on #

    I don’t think you can really tell when people are lying without any context, but I do get the feeling of being lied to quite a bit in contexts where lying is likely. Usually it’s just logic that shows it up – what they are saying seems likely not to be true, or doesn’t jive with what you know to be true, even though the clash isn’t so strong that you know for a fact that it’s a lie.

    But the easiest way is this: by and large people are habitually fooling themselves all the time. So almost everything they say is, to some degree, untrue. So on average you can tell that a person is lying because their lips are moving.

    I know that sounds hopelessly cynical, but I don’t mean it that way. Knowing that people tend not to tell the truth, and knowing that I am “people,” provides me with a motivation to stop, let my mind get quiet, and think about whether what I’m saying is really something I know is true, or whether I just superficially believe it’s true because I never stopped to think.

    And then also if you just expect to be lied to, and realize it’s being done without malice, you can maintain a better attitude about it when it hits you in the face.

  4. gwenda on #

    Hey, you might look at some texts about body language analysis — in a couple of lectures I’ve been to, those have been referenced as the best books to talk about interpreting lying and motivations in those around you. A couple of titles that get cited fairly frequently:

    Morris, D. Body Talk: The Meaning of Human Gestures. Crown. NY. 1994.

    ***Ekman, P. Telling Lies: Clues to Deception. New York. Norton. 1992.

    Knapp, M. and J. Hall. Nonverbal Communication in Human Interaction. Fort Worth. Harcourt Brace. 1992.

  5. Sharon Kugler on #

    I had to take a polygraph test when I was about 17, when some money went missing from the mall shoe store where I cashiered. Even though I was innocent, I was PARAlyzed with fear of screwing up, my hands were sweaty, my heart was hammering…I don’t know how I passed! The feeling I associate with the whole experience was humiliation. (Oh, and the culprit turned out to be my manager.)

  6. Brent on #

    Lying is an art. gwenda’s references on body language are great. Most people can control their vocal tones, but subtle body language gives them away.

    Most of my lying is either exaggeration to inflate my point (a habit I’m trying to break) or kidding/teasing (a hobby I thoroughly enjoy). Keeping a straight face is easy for me, perhaps because of all my RPG experience.

    I simply pretend that the lie is true to myself for a bit as if I were acting in a play. Since I rarely have to keep it going more than a few minutes for the tease, kidding, or prank to be effective it isn’t that hard.

    I’ve run into some habitual liars where it is VERY difficult to tell when they’re lying, even when I know what the truth is. I have the opinion that maybe they’re not always sure themselves that they’re lying or telling the truth.

    Lastly, this line of questioning says wonderful things about you. As the old proverb goes: “The man who has never hid under the bed, doesn’t think to look there.”

  7. PJ Hoover on #

    Check out some of the videos on 60 Minutes featuring Marc Salem. He’s this guy who basically seems to read minds, know exactly when people are lying or telling the truth. Amazing stuff, really!

  8. Mallory on #

    The trick to lying is to repattern your behavior to replicate your body responses when you are being honest – and to PUSH energetically in the same way you do when you are being truthful.

    Method acting is similar – essentially you have to LIE from a completely authentic place by becoming the place where it is truth.

  9. Chris McLaren on #

    Picking up where Gwenda left off, you can also look at some technical references for poker players. Caro’s Book of Poker Tells has a lot of information that would be useful for anyone hoping to catch liar or be a better one–albeit mostly in a highly specific context.

    I imagine the most useful book for you would be a training manual for law enforcement agents–both for interrogation/avoidance techniques and for the specifics of machine-assisted analysis. I feel like Loompanics used to publish a couple of books that would be useful, but since they’re dead now…

    On a completely different line, I quite liked Sissela Bok’s book about lying–but that’s a lot more philosophical/ethical in nature, and a lot less practical than what you seem to be looking for.

  10. Liset on #

    OH! I love lies!!!!
    especially when i was in elementry school, I used to lie about everything. I thought it was funny…. i think i was a weird kid. Either way, I found it very useful to pretend like I was REALLY bad at lying. i.e. i would make up a really stupid lie and get all cutesie about it, like smile really big and shuffle my feet. Then people would always tell me that I was a bad liar…! But they never noticed when I was making up stories. That made me happy, I felt like a spy!…. yeah I’m pretty sure i WAS a weird kid….

    hope that helped!

  11. Yanni on #

    Lying- simply put don’t. Don’t lie. Tell the truth. It doesn’t have to be all of the truth, just make sure it’s most of the truth. I never lie. Well that’s not true, but when I’m “lying” there are deliberate modifiers in my behavior that I know are there and allow to remain. If there is something I don’t want others to know about or find out, I figure out what part of the truth I can tell and use only that.

  12. Justine on #

    Thanks for all these excellent and extremely useful responses. I really appreciate it.

    Sharon: Was the manager identified as the culprit via the lie detector test?

    Yanni: Now, now, let’s not get moral. Is a series of research questions for a book I’m writing. Which is to say I am uninterested in the question of whether people should or shouldn’t lie. i want to know why and how. And how people go about detecting lies.

    Thus the Paul Ekman leads were most excellent. Thank you.

    Now I need to find research on what parts of the brains are used when we lie, which leads to the question: is it a lie if the liar believes what they say to be the truth? Paul Ekman says that pathological liars are not liars by his definition because their lies are a compulsion. They don’t chose not to tell the truth. Fascinating, eh?

  13. Hillary! on #

    I’m a horrible person, you can’t tell when I’m lying because I look people in the eye. I am a very horrible person.

  14. Yanni on #

    I wasn’t saying don’t lie in a moral sense. I was saying don’t lie to lie. Use the truth to help you out. That would be how I would get around a lie detector or a paper test. Find a way for your truth to help your situation. It’s easier to remember what you’ve said, and people don’t find those behavior modifications that clue them in to you lying.

    Of course, some would see incomplete or selective disclosure as lying. It depends on how tightly you define truth v. lie.

  15. simmone on #

    howdy – mj hyland’s ‘carry me down’ features a young male protag who believes he’s a human lie detecter and keeps a book of lies … these days i reserve my lies for the page – where they need to be most convincing

  16. Susan Marie Groppi on #

    Most lie-detecting is very easy, because most people feel guilty about lying, so you just have to pay attention for signs that there’s something wrong with the person. That’s where you get stuff like elevated heart rate, shifty eyes, body tension, etc. That’s also where a lot of the typical tells you see on cop shows, thing like the liar offering too much detail, come from.

    Successful habitual liars are successful because they’re not nervous–either they believe what they’re saying, on some level, or they just don’t care. I used to be kind of a habitual liar, and the key for me was believing, even if only really superficially, what I was saying. (Unfortunate side-effect, there are a few incidents from my childhood where I basically have two parallel sets of memories.) It’s strangely addictive, too–I made a decision when I was nineteen or twenty that I didn’t want to lie so much, and ever since then I’ve been basically a truthful person, but it was surprisingly hard to stop lying, especially about totally trivial things. It’s -easy- to be honest about things that matter, but for years my first instinct when asked casual questions (like, “where did you buy that sweater” or “what did you have for dinner last night”) was to say something totally untrue. I still sometimes indulge myself in little untruths, like giving improvised fake answers when cabdrivers try to make small-talk.

  17. stormywriting on #

    I believe strongly in the poer of words; so I can’t really help you on that, and I’ve never been under a lie detector test. But I can say this; I have a friend who lies on a regular basis.

    I can always tell when she lies, because she smiles, fully engages the person she’s talking to, adds lots of detail, and is very entuisisatic. She is not like this normally, but it is such a sweet act- and such a GOOD act- that I haven’t seen one person besides myself catch it. She employs the same act when she steals things. (Which I’ve never actually witnessed, but she explained her tactics to me once.)

    I think the important thing to remember about lying is this; people always change their mannerisims in some way when they lie, and it is always in the SAME way (for each person).

  18. Stephen on #

    The trick to being a successful liar is to tell the truth whenever you possibly can.

    The BBC used this technique to great effect during WWII. They would reliably report allied setbacks as well as allied victories.

    But just every so often they would put in a huge outrageous lie. It would be believed because everyone knew the BBC was reliable.

    The other really good technique is to get someone else to tell the lie for you. First convince them that it is true and they will go on to beat any lie-detector test in existence.

    Of course this is all (ahem) theoretical as far as I am concerned…

  19. Sharon Kugler on #

    Re: the thieving manager: nah, he confessed before taking it.

  20. Allie on #

    I can tell when my uncle is lying because of the face he makes and if what he is saying doesn’t make any sense. He might tell you something to see if you will belive him, and then he laughs when you really do belive him.

    I can tell when my friend lies because she tries to sound likes she is older than she is and knows what she is talking about.

  21. Sarah on #

    The secret to lying is to make the lie as close to the truth as possible.

    If you don’t believe your own lie, no one else will believe you either. Haha, that sounds terrible coming from me………but I don’t lie very often.

  22. Anonymous on #

    I was required to take a polygraph a long time ago. I was the manager of a retail store. There had been an employee that worked for me who did not like me and accused me of things. Some items had turned up missing and she accused me of that as well.

    I was innocent and when asked to take the test, of course did so willingly. I was told what some of the questions would be on a general level. I learned that some questions that were going to be asked had nothing to do with the missing inventory but about something else I was being accused of. Although I was innocent of it at the time, when I was much younger and stupid, I had done these things.

    I find that if there is some truth in the lie, then you can get away with certain things. For example, if you are asked, “Have you ever taken anything from the store without paying for it.” If I had, by simply saying yes, I have taken things like paper clips, office supplies, etc. you are telling the truth without telling the whole truth.

    I don’t know if any of that makes sense but I did pass the test and I was innocent of what I had been accused of. And the missing inventory ended up being located in the shipping and receiving room.

  23. Stephen on #

    Purely as a matter of interest, those people who say “I can always tell when X is lying” – how do you know?

    Couldn’t they have lied on occasions that you didn’t find out about? 🙂

  24. Reese on #

    I’m an excellent liar. I’m not proud of it, no, I am. Its just so easy… The secret, you ask? Too many people send off signals while lying. They look in the direction of thier dominant hand, they fidgit, twitch, sweat, stutter. Don’t do that!

    Be yourself! If you weren’t lying, how would you respond? Do that. If you need to cry, think of something sad. Like that lady who asked you for money to buy food. Or the time your dog was run over by a car. Cry real tears!

    If you’re supposed to be happy, think up one of those jokes that always set you off for ages!

    Lying is powerful though. It can be used for good… or EVIL!!!!! Good: “She’ll be late to class, Mr. so and so. Her locker is jammed.” okay. Thats sort of evil. Evil: “She’ll be late to class Mr so and so. She’s making her daily trip to the bathroom. Yeah, she goes everyday after lunch.”

    Not that I would ever do that. Seriously.

  25. sherry on #

    i knew a compulsive liar once–had a brief relationship with him actually. when i asked him why he lied, he said he just couldn’t stop himself. he had severe anxiety attacks and i think he just suffered from the need to keep everyone around him happy–to tell them what they wanted to hear. his heart would speed up and he his breathing would accelerate and he’d just open his mouth and it would come out of its own accord. at least that is what he told me. which was very likely a lie now that i think of it. 🙂

    i think it all stemmed from the need to avoid confrontation, whatever the cost.

    don’t know if this helps at all.

    oh and i could usually tell when he was lying–mostly because things didn’t fit together–like the fact that his mother died three times and was very much alive when i called her after that.

  26. Cynthia Armistead on #

    Years ago, I worked for the first bank in this area (Atlanta, Georgia, US) to put locations in grocery stores. After training, they made me a “floater,” so I went to whichever branch in my area didn’t have enough people for my shift.

    Apparently, they didn’t think through the security so very well, and there was a series of break-ins in which someone went through the dropped ceiling into the bank branches to steal money after-hours (the grocery stores were open 24-7). They suspected an “inside job,” and I’d worked at every branch that was hit, so I was asked to take a polygraph test.

    I didn’t realize at the time that my normal blood pressure is quite low. For some reason, that and the fact that I was completely calm (I knew I didn’t have anything to do with the robberies) screwed up the test – there was no real difference between me saying one of their “test lies” and saying, truthfully, that I knew nothing about the robberies other than what little I’d heard at work. The guy doing the test got really mad at started yelling at me for no apparent reason.

    Unfortunately for him, it was obvious to me that he presented no physical threat, and I’d been yelled at (and worse) by a 6’4″ Marine for most of my life. I didn’t freak out. When he told me to get the hell out of his office, I did. My manager told me later that the guy was certain I’d done SOMETHING wrong, but I had awfully good alibis for every time they’d asked me about. In fact, I’d been singing in front of an entire congregation during several of the robberies.

    I figure it’s a really good thing that was before I took biofeedback training.

    The most convincing liars I’ve ever known are those who have borderline or narcissistic personality disorders. Whatever they’re saying is the absolute truth to them while they’re saying it.

    As I recall, the culprits did have an accomplice in the bank, but it was someone much higher up the food chain that I was. I made a point of not knowing the combinations for the safe at any branch, since I wasn’t a regular at any of them, but there was at least one person who had access to all of them.

  27. Aislinn Ai on #

    I find that the best way to make a lie believable is to believe it yourself, at least for the moment. Act as if it WERE true. It’s surprisingly easy to convince yourself that something is true, particularly when you are trying to convince someone ELSE that it’s true.

    Also, if someone thinks your story doesn’t make sense, instead of coming up with a complicated explaination, act as confused as they are.
    Pretending not to understand the question is a good way to buy time to think of an answer.

    I feel dirty.

  28. shelly rae on #

    Tell the truth but tell it slant, success in circuit lies….
    and that’s pretty much all you need to know.

  29. limeywesty on #

    the secret to lying is to actually, not lie at all.
    you tell the truth, but you don’t tell the whole truth.
    so, there are always things left up in the air. this causes people to make assumptions, and nearly always, their assumption is the most likely one. and if you’ve told your story correctly, then you won’t get into any trouble, because they’ll be assuming the best.

    it never fails. and if for some odd reason, you do fail, and someone accuses you of lying, you can say (without lying) that you weren’t lying, you just didn’t tell them that certain aspect of the story.

  30. rebecca on #

    for the record, i’ve always heard that polygraph tests are completely unreliable and easy to fool besides. this is why i absolutely detest that stupid show moment of truth. the whole effing thing is a lie. some guy is probably sitting there in a dark room with two buttons to push, deciding when to say “true” and when to say “false,” and none of it has anything to do with what the contestant actually says. and that’s only one reason why i hate that stupid show. end soapbox.

    in high school, i lied and sneaked around all the time, and i usually got away with it. i learned a couple things from this. one, if you’re generally trustworthy and people know that there are certain lines you won’t cross, then you can easily get away with other, less “serious” things. two, even if you know you’re lying, you can still pull it off as long as you feel that the lie is justified. i rarely felt guilty about lying back then. but everything flipped in college. i stopped feeling justified, so i stopped lying. for me, that seems to be the key. it also helps to be able to come up with relatively believable stories on the spot. if you have to stop and think, that’s the first and most obvious clue that you’re not telling the truth.

    on the opposite end of things, i’m utterly crap at reading other people. it doesn’t matter if they’re lying or pissed or whatever, i only seem to see what’s on the surface. i’m the same way when reading “great” literary works. i never see the underlying meaning of either one until someone else points it out to me. hmm, maybe that’s the fairy i need.

  31. Dawn on #

    I think I’m a convincing liar, but I think that since I’m a 90% trusting person, that when I lie, people just expect it to be truth. I’m not proud that I’m good at it, really, I’m not. It makes me feel horrible.

  32. Jane Volker on #

    John Green wrote a list of “Things I am good at” in which he listed sitting down and telling lies. He said that’s why he became a writer.

    So there you have it – ask your mate!

    On a more practical note – a good lie (for good – read convincing) should always have some truth attached. Then if ever found out the author of the lie can claim they misunderstood the situation.
    A good liar should have a great memory.

  33. Jenny on #

    There’s an abstract on PubMed (here) in which a variety of people were asked to distinguish liars from nonliars. The only people to perform better than chance were Secret Service agents.

  34. Justine on #

    Thanks again, everyone. Some fabulous stuff here.

    Jane Volker: I already did.

  35. Deborah on #

    I think everyone has generally given good advice on how to be a successful liar, but I think the true key to getting away with a fib is picking your target carefully. Because really, the worst liar I’ve ever met is also the person who pulled the wool over my eyes most successfully–and he was able to do that in large part because he told *such* bald-faced lies that I couldn’t believe they were actually lies. This is a kid who could have been standing over a corpse with a bloody knife in his hands and claimed that he had *no idea* how those stab wounds got there. Even if you told him that you’d *seen* him do it, he’d have told you you saw wrong. It was ridiculously unbelievable…which is why it worked. I couldn’t believe that someone could lie that badly to my face and expect me to believe it; even if I’d seen him do something rotten with my own eyes, I started to doubt what I’d seen.

    But more importantly, I *wanted* to believe him–which brings me to the moral of my story: all you really need to be a successful liar is a gullible target–or, more accurately, someone who *wants* to believe you. If you’ve cheated on your girlfriend, you can probably get away with lying to her about it because she doesn’t *want* to believe that you would do that to her. You have to figure out what someone wants to hear, and then you have to say that. It doesn’t matter how crappy your performance is, how completely it contradicts all available evidence; people will believe it because the alternative means looking like an ass. And everyone hates feeling stupid.

  36. Jane Volker on #

    I am shame-faced and blushing. But my excuse is that I only found your blog TODAY and I hadn’t quite read back as far as 2006.
    Brilliant interview. Very entertaining. I’m always impressed by a teller of tall tales mostly because I can’t lie convincingly unless I think the person I’m speaking to needs me to. In fact I can look totally guilty when I’m telling the whole truth. It’s a terrible affliction. Maybe people fall into two groups: good liars and good confessors.
    It’s a bit depressing to realise you are one of the latter.

  37. Jessica on #

    Don’t pause. Just GO. The best liar I know (who happens to be ELEVEN YEARS OLD) just spins stories out of nowhere so fast I can’t tell which are true and which aren’t – and I know he’s a pathological liar. And the times I’ve been most convincing in my own lies are the times I didn’t even know I was going to lie until I said it.

  38. Justine on #

    Jane Volker: I am shame-faced and blushing.

    Don’t be silly. Why would you know about an interview conducted almost two years ago? I posted the link cause I thought you might be interested and because it confirms your supposition that Mr Green does indeed know a vast deal about lying.

  39. eek on #

    I do a lot of ferreting out lies in my day job work and I have to say, so much of detecting lies is what I call the internal tuning fork – it’s just this “ping” I feel inside sometimes when someone says something – sometimes it’s that the word choice is odd, or the voice fluctuated and sometimes it’s just instinct. But when I start pulling at the story, some common things fall apart.

    First, as a caveat on all this, some people are such good liars they actually convince themselves the lie is truth – they are almost undetectable, because there won’t really be any tells. The “tells” – eye contact, pupils, breathing, pitch, pulse, blood flow, etc… – none of that will show if the person is: (1) believing the lie; or, (2) psychotic/compulsive.
    Now, for the rest of us, there are tells. And those tells are different for everyone.

    Many times, the lie is told differently than the truth – with someone who is generally fluid in their delivery, sometimes the lie stumbles or a word choice is off. If the person sometimes hunts for words, sometimes the lie is too well-rehearsed or flowing.

    Many, many times I say the truth is in the pauses – and in the deflections. When someone doesn’t answer a question fully, or directly, I usually zero in on the deflection. I find with many people the information I need to know most is in the pauses between their answers.

    But, all that said, there are some good liars, and those people you only trip up in examining the details and seeing if every facet of the lie can be proven true- usally some small detail, maybe even as small as time or place, falls away, and then the story unravels. Becuase (generally) people don’t lie about little things unless they are trying to hide bigger things. So, sometimes someone lies about some stupid thing, and that derails an otehrwise well-concocted lie.

    There are some great articles on jury seletion out there, and they are studies in psychology and reading people. Some of that technique would work for detecting liars, too.

    Here are some pretty basic sites talking about some of the techiniques and tests (although, they may be too shallow, if you’ve already been researching):

    What it comes down to very much is focussing on the person totally and watching for the thing that makes you wonder if the person is lying – the loose thread to unravel the lie is there. Even over the phone, even in written letters, the thing that makes you pause and wonder, to hesitate, your instincts are picking up on something…so pull at it and see what falls apart.

    Just some quick thoughts… emily

  40. Sarah P on #

    Reflecting some of the other posts, I was taught to always make my lie part true. If I’m taking a day off work to attend a funeral, include the aunt that died a month ago, even though the funeral was on a weekend and required no days off work. If you make it partially true, you can feed off that section of the truth and let it carry over into the not-so-true part.

    Moderately related: a friend of mine has no adrenal gland, and has to take adrenaline just to keep his heart beating regularly. He was falsely accused of stealing by a grocery store, and placed in a small room with many people yelling at him. The fact that he never got excited, raised his voice, or freaked out was held against him, though it’s pretty imnpossible for him to get upset, or at least manifest it physically. He was eventually allowed to leave, and never went back.

  41. Amy on #

    Don’t know if this is still helpful, but I thought I’d post it anyway, since I don’t think anyone’s said this already 🙂

    I don’t often lie, but when I need to – cough cough, ‘needed’ to go to a Harry Potter convention but told uni my cousin was getting married – I make up all the information around the lie to support it before I tell them, littering it freely with the truth and getting all the details fixed in my mind. Then when I have to tell the lie, I only tell them a tiny bit more than they asked for – not so much as to make them suspicious – and then if/when they ask me further questions (like, so where is your cousin getting married?) I can quite happily and confidently answer, and give the same answer to everyone (in the church near m grandparents’ house, so my grandma doesn’t have to travel too far with her sciatica) and not get caught out later.

    Of course, this takes a bit of prep time, but not a huge amount. It depends on the extent of the lie. Usually I can do it in a couple of minutes, and then I repeat it to myself in my mind to fix it there.

    I have never been caught out.

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