Updated: Jul 26
I once had an acquaintance who was really smart and fun to hang out with, but he had a really bad habit. He told elaborate lies. Research suggests most people lie, on average, one or two times a day. However, this individual’s habit of lying verged on compulsive.
Much of what he said was more than exaggerations or misleading; he routinely communicated messages that were deliberately deceiving. He lied with ease and only in hindsight did I recognize his signs of deception. Some of those signs included:
Avoiding eye contact
Taking longer than usual to respond
Tripping over words to the point of occasionally stuttering
Forgetting details from stories previously shared
Note that these behaviors are not specific to deception in all people or situations, but they are cognitive and emotional clues. After I uncovered one lie, the others became clearer to see, and I distanced myself from the relationship.
A large body of research focuses on deception detection. The results of hundreds of experiments suggest the average person accurately discriminates lies from truths just over 50% of the time. In other words, we aren’t very good at detecting lies.
At least two cognitive biases make us vulnerable to deception:
Trust bias: When communicating with others, we tend to believe that what the other person says is honest.
Illusory truth effect: When we are exposed to false information repeatedly, we tend to believe it's correct.
Research tells us much less about how to effectively deal with a liar, but if you suspect someone is being dishonest, consider the following points:
Treat what the liar says with skepticism. Check the facts. This isn’t always easy. Look for data that is from objective sources and be aware of confirmation bias (our tendency to search for and interpret information to support our preconceptions).
Ignore the liar. This can be difficult for those among us who value honesty above all else. Consider if it’s worth confronting the liar and your motivation for doing so. Wanting to be right usually isn’t the best reason to battle with someone who is dishonest.
Some lies are harmful. They can come from acquaintances, people we love, corporate leaders, or government officials, and when they are so egregious we can’t remain silent.
If you decide to address a lie, you should avoid two common mistakes:
Don’t respond emotionally. Most liars thrive when we respond this way.
Don’t focus on the lie. When you repeat a lie, you help the liar. For example, saying, “He says undocumented immigrants are committing voter fraud, but a comprehensive study confirmed a voter-fraud rate of 0.0003 percent” gives more attention to the lie if only because it has been repeated.
Regulate your emotions and focus on the truth. Monitor your thoughts and words, and don’t get distracted by the liar’s words. Instead, calmly emphasize and repeat the facts. Back to our example from above, you could simply omit the first part of the sentence or say, “A comprehensive study found 99.9997% of votes are cast legally.”
A liar’s behavior usually has little to do with us. It might sound strange, but I have some degree of empathy for the compulsive liars. Not only can’t we trust them, it’s unlikely they know how to trust anyone else.
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