Inspirations: Lies and how to spot them

  • Deception is an essential part of social interaction.
  • People are detect lies better when they cannot see body language.
  • Understanding what gives away a lie may help people to lie better.
  • Fictional characters are more realistic when they are as honest as real people.


(Alexa LaSpisa [CC / Flickr])

Try this: Extend the finger of whichever hand you write with and trace a capital Q on your forehead. Which eye does the tail of the Q point toward?

According to cognitive neuroscientist Sophie Scott, the direction is a good indication of how likely you are to tell lies. If the tail points toward your right eye, it is orientated to be read by you rather than someone looking at you. You are, in technical parlance, a low self-monitor. Your behaviour is governed by your inner feelings and values rather than your situation, and your awareness of that situation is probably limited.

If the tail pointed at your left eye so the ‘Q’ is orientated for someone looking at you, you are a high self-monitor. You are conscious of the people around you and the way they perceive you. You are more likely to manipulate those perceptions by lying than a low self-monitor.

Scott described the Q-test as part of a discussion of deception in the Infinite Monkey Cage, a radio series well worth listening to if you like your science marinated in humour. The podcast is available here.

I lie therefore I am

As a science groupie and a writer who wrestles with the problem of building authentic characters, I find deception fascinating because it shows how central lying is to human interactions. And make no mistake, it is central. According Scott’s fellow panellist, Richard Wiseman, psychologist and author of Quirkology, the book that popularised the Q-test, 50% of us learned to lie by three years of age and all of us by five.


(Jeremy Lim [CC / Flickr])

When I came across the interpretation of the Q-test, I became aware of a degree of cognitive dissonance. Lying is bad, right? We value honesty and we don’t trust liars. So why did I find myself thinking that the high self-monitor, who is more likely to lie, is probably a nicer guy to be around than the low self-monitor? If the low self-monitor is oblivious to the feelings of the people around him, how can he be considerate toward them? If his girlfriend asks him if her bum looks big in this, he’s the sort who is likely to say ‘yes’.

The discrepancy shows that while we may condemn dishonesty, it’s a social lubricant we don’t want to do without. Wiseman describes a disastrous attempt at relationship therapy in which couples pledge to be completely honest for 24h. The short timescale shows how difficult it must be, but it’s more than enough to set the hands of divorce lawyers rubbing in anticipation.

Good at telling lies, better at believing them

The social value of dishonesty suggests why it is that while children can lie before they can construct a sentence, most of us are very bad at spotting lies when we hear them. It’s not as if lies are a recent innovation. Scott refers to deception of various degrees being identified in many primates, suggesting that lying has been coded in our genes for tens of millions of years. If our ancestors’ facility for detecting lies didn’t keep pace with their facility for telling them, it suggests there was no evolutionary advantage in doing so. On balance, our ancestors must have gained more by accepting lies and maintaining social cohesion than by spotting them and reacting to them.


(rodger bridges [CC / Flickr])

Paul Ekman, whose work on detecting lies through identifying microexpressions inspired the TV show Lie to Me, said in an interview that ‘if I see my wife showing a micro-expression, I know that she’s having emotions she doesn’t want me to see – I cannot avoid knowing that’. The cost of knowing when he’s being lied to is having to cope with the brutal honesty of the people he loves.

Ekman’s skills are valuable because while dishonesty may have advantages we prefer not to acknowledge, many lies are destructive. There are certain professions, such as police detectives, where spotting a lie is part of the job. The rest of us would like to know whether the estate agent or landlord showing us a house is hiding something or whether the man selling us the Eiffel Tower really has the deeds. It would be nice to know if our politicians are lying to us, if only so we can identify the rare occasions when they’re not.

The Megalab Truth Test

Most of us have spotted a lie a few times, so we must have some ability to spot a porkie when we hear it. In 1995, Wiseman worked with the BBC to conduct a large experiment called the Megalab Truth Test, a name that practically screams that it was imposed by the broadcaster. Wiseman twice interviewed the late Sir Robin Day, a well-known broadcaster at the time, about his favourite film. In one of the interviews, he was telling the truth. In the other, he was lying. The interviews were broadcast on television and radio, and transcripts were placed in a national newspaper. People were invited to write in with their opinion on which answer was the truth.

Here are the transcripts:

Transcript 1

RW: So, Sir Robin, what’s your favourite film?

RD: Gone With the Wind.


(Christina Saint Marche [CC / Flickr])

RW: And why’s that?

RD: Oh, it’s … it … it’s a classic. Great characters; great film star – Clark Gable; a great actress – Vivien Leigh. Very moving.

RW: And who’s your favourite character in it?

RD: Oh, Gable.

RW: And how many times have you seen it?

RD: Um … [pause] I think about half a dozen.

RW: And when was the first time that you saw it?

RD: When it first came out. I think that it was in 1939.

Trancript 2

RW: So, Sir Robin, what’s your favourite film?

RD: Ah … [pause] er, Some Like It Hot.

RW: And why do you like that?

RD: Oh, because it gets funnier every time that I see it. There are all sorts of bits in it which I love. And I like them more each time that I see it.


(Steven Depolo [CC / Flickr])

RW: Who’s your favourite character in it?

RD: Oh, Tony Curtis, I think. He’s so pretty … [short pause] and he’s so witty, and he mimics Cary Grant so well and he’s very funny the way he tries to resist being seduced by Marilyn Monroe.

RW: And when was the first time that you saw it?

RD: I think when it came out, and I forget when that was.

Now take a moment to decide which you think was the truth and which you think is the lie.

If you think he was lying about Gone with the Wind, you’re not only correct but also in good company. About 64% of people got it right based on the transcript. Based on the radio, where people could hear his voice, the figure went up to 73%. However, among people watching on television, who could not only hear his voice but also observe his body language, only 52% got it right, which was barely better than we might expect by chance.

Many people believe a liar is given away by their body language, but the Megalab study shows most people do better when they concentrate on word choice and voice tone. If lying is instinctive, perhaps part of that instinct is to use our body language as a distraction in much the same way that a stage conjuror directs his audience’s attention everywhere but at her sleight-of-hand.

Spotting a lie

At this point, it’s helpful to turn to Pamela Meyer, author of Liespotting:


Meyer says it takes a great deal of training to read body language well enough to spot a liar, and that many things widely believed to be giveaways are actually not helpful. For example, expressions of nervousness don’t mean someone is lying because there are many reasons why someone may be nervous. Similarly, the myth that a liar avoids eye contact has become so pervasive that liars often over-compensate by holding eye contact for longer than usual.


(Piers Nye [CC / Flickr])

Meyer is worth watching if only for her merciless analysis of Bill Clinton asserting he ‘did not have sexual relations with that woman’, giving himself away through language that is both overly formal and distancing. If he was a more accomplished liar, he’d have said, ‘Monica didn’t give me a blow job’.

Hiding the tell

Which raises a point that neither Meyer nor any of the Monkey Cage panellists raise, which is that knowing the giveaways may not only make us better at spotting a lie but also better at telling one. Naturally, I take it for granted that only a person of impeccable integrity will have read this far, but if you’re write characters as dishonest as some of mine, they’ll be more believable if they’re good at it.

Meyer says trained interrogators trip up liars by getting them to tell their stories out of chronological order, so a liar preparing for an interrogation may imagine the events they intend to describe rather than focusing on what they’re going to say.

Monkey Cage panellist David Aaronovitch quotes former Liberal party leader Paddy Ashdown saying of Tony Blair that he ‘meant it when he said it’, implying that Blair was able to be genuinely honest by believing whatever it was expedient to believe at the time.


(Don Hankins [CC / Flickr])

Perhaps most tellingly is Henry’s rule, coined by the elusive fraudster Henry Oberlander: ‘everyone is willing to give you something. They’re ready to give you something for whatever it is they’re hungry for’. As Meyer puts it, if we know what we’re hungry for, we’re less likely to be deceived by someone offering it. If we  – sorry, if our characters – know what other people are hungry for, they will be able to get people to co-operate in their own deceit. If they’re good at it, the tail of their Q will point to their left eye.

In case you’re wondering, my tail also pointed left. But I might be lying.


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Posted in Inspirations, Wednesday Pontification

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