Of all stinging invectives, being called a liar is near the top. Fact is, though, if bona fide lie detectors existed, we'd all be guilty as charged.
According to an oft-cited 1996 University of Virginia study led by psychologist Bella DePaulo, lying is part of the human condition. Over the course of one week, DePaulo and her colleagues asked 147 participants, aged 18 to 71, to record in a diary all of their social interactions and all of the lies they told during them. On average, each person lied just over 10 times, and only seven participants claimed to have been completely honest.
The truth, according to social psychologist Leonard Saxe, director of the Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis University, is that the right pressures or incentives will cause anybody to lie.
To be fair, most of the time we're just trying to be nice. (When your girlfriend asks if she looks good in her new dress, most guys — if they know what's good for them — say yes.) Indeed, according to DePaulo's study, such "false-positive" fibs are delivered 10 to 20 times more often than spurious denials of culpability.
Thankfully, too: "We lie less frequently to our significant others because we're more invested in those relationships," says Jeffrey Hancock, associate professor of communications at Cornell University.
For all the Eliot Spitzers, Jeffrey Skillings and Bill Clintons in the world, studies show that men and women lie with equal frequency. One difference, according to a 2002 University of Massachusetts study conducted by psychologist Robert Feldman: Women are more likely to lie to make other people feel good, while men tend to lie to make themselves look better.
How to catch liars in the act? Traditional polygraph tests, around in some form or fashion since the early 1900s, use sensors to detect fluctuations in blood pressure, pulse, respiration and sweat in response to probing questions. Two problems with polygraphs: First, they only work about 80 percent of the time, according to the American Polygraph Association. Second, it's not like we are going to carry all that hardware to a business meeting or a bar.
While there is no surefire on-the-spot way to sniff out dissemblers, there are some helpful clues and tactics for uncovering untruths.
Skilled liars don't break a sweat, but the rest of us get a little fidgety. Four possible giveaways: shifty eyes, higher vocal pitch, perspiration and heavier breathing. Of course, not everyone who doesn't meet your gaze is a liar.
"Certain behavioral traits, like averting eye contact, could be cultural and not indicative of a liar," says Joseph Buckley, president of John E. Reid & Associates, which has provided interview and interrogation training to more than 500,000 law enforcement agents to date. The company is also the creator of the Reid Technique, a nine-step interrogation process employed by many U.S. law enforcement agencies.
Another clue: imprecise pronouns. To psychologically distance themselves from a lie, people often pepper their tales with second- and third-person pronouns like "you," "we" and "they," says Hancock.
Liars are also more likely to ask that questions be repeated and begin responses with phrases like, "to tell you the truth," and "to be perfectly honest," says Reid.
When telling the truth, people often make hand gestures to the rhythm of their speech. Hands emphasize points or phrases — a natural and compelling technique when they actually believe the points they're making. The less certain will keep gesticulations in check, says Hancock.
Something about the phone seems to bring out the liar in us. In one week-long study of 30 college students, Hancock observed that the phone was the weapon of choice, enabling 37 percent of all the lies, versus 27 percent during face-to-face exchanges, 21 percent using Instant Messaging and just 14 percent via email. Little surprise, perhaps: Most phone calls don't leave a record behind.
Will we ever come clean? Not likely. The subjects in DePaulo's study confessed that they would tell 75 percent of the lies again if given the opportunity. Chances are, they'd get away with it.