Lying and Deceit

Psychology 101: The 101 Ideas, Concepts and Theories that Have Shaped Our World - Adrian Furnham 2021

Lying and Deceit

A truth that’s told with bad intent, Beats all the lies you can invent. (William Blake, Auguries of Innocence, 1800)

Oh what a tangled web we weave, When first we practice to deceive. (Walter Scott, Marmion, 1810)

A little inaccuracy sometimes saves a ton of explanation. (Saki, The Square Egg, 1895)

Liars ’leak’ deceit. Most try hard to cover-up their deceit but it is difficult trying to control your words, voice, face, feet and hands all at the same time. The voice and the face carry important cues.

Prof. Aldert Vrij from Portsmouth University in England has identified 17 non-verbal behaviours that may be directly related to lying:

1 Speech hesitations: use of the words ’ah’, ’um’, ’er’, and so on.

2 Speech errors: word and/or sentence repetition, sentence change, sentence incompletions, slips of the tongue, and other errors.

3 Pitch of voice: changes in pitch of voice, such as a rise or fall in pitch.

4 Speech rate: number of spoken words in a certain period of time.

5 Latency period: period of silence between question and answer.

6 Frequency of pauses: frequency of silent periods during speech.

7 Pause durations: length of silent periods during speech.

8 Gaze: avoiding looking at the face of the conversation partner.

9 Smile: smiling and laughing inappropriately or excessively.

10 Blinking: blinking of the eyes.

11 Self-manipulations: scratching the head, wrists, and so on.

12 Illustrators: functional hand and arm movements designed to modify and/or supplement what is being said verbally.

13 Hand and finger movements: non-functional movements of hands or fingers without moving the arms.

14 Leg and foot movements: movements of the feet and legs.

15 Head movements: head nods and head shakes.

16 Trunk movements: movements of the trunk (usually accompanied by head movements).

17 Shifting position: movements made to change the sitting position (usually accompanied by trunk and foot/leg movements).

He also gave some very specific verbal indicators that can indicate a person is lying:

Negative statements: Statements that indicate aversion towards an object, person or opinion, such as denials and disparaging statements, and statements indicating a negative mood.

Plausible answers: Statements which make sense and which sound credible and reasonable.

Irrelevant information: Information which is irrelevant to the context, and which has not been asked for.

Overgeneralized statements: The use of words such as ’always’, ’never’, ’nobody’, ’everybody’, and so on.

Self-References: The use of words referring to the speaker himself or herself, such as ’I’, ’me’ or ’mine’.

Direct answers: To-the-point and straightforward statements (for example, ’I like John’ is more direct than ’I like John’s company.’

Response length: Length of response or number of words spoken.

Paul Ekman, the greatest expert in this area, has stressed facial clues to deceit and how facial expressions can serve a lie, but also provide manifold and very subtle clues to the truth.

Ekman has argued that the face may contain many different clues to deceit including micro and squelched expressions, leakage in the reliable facial muscles, blinking, pupil dilation, tearing, blushing and blanching, asymmetry, mistakes in timing, mistakes in location and false smiles.

There are some facts that are clearly true about lying:

1 You can observe stress signals produced by the autonomic nervous system: dry mouth, sweaty palms, shallow uneven breathing, ’tickly’ nose and throat, blushing or blanching.

2 People are less conscious of their feet or legs: the further you are from the face the nearer you get to the truth.

3 Posture is more sincere than gesture: it can be seen as more unnatural and forced when people lie.

4 Give-away, expansive gestures decline: because they feel they may be caught, liars tend to sit on their hands, fold their arms, clasp their hands together.

5 Shifty gazes: when children are lying they look down or away. They look guilty but do not look you in the eye.

Peter Collett, the Oxford University trained psychologist, used the concept of ’tell’ to specify signals or actions that ’tells you’ what somebody is thinking even if that person does not know it themselves:

Detection Tells: Whereas most people believe they are good at detecting lies, the opposite appears to be the case. They seem to fail at this all-important skill for five reasons. First people prefer blissful ignorance, not wanting to admit that the other person is lying. Next people set their detection threshold very high but highly suspicious people might set it very low. Third, people who rely on intuition and ’gut feelings’ do not do as well as those who look for clues to deception. Fourth, people forget that all behaviours have multiple causes and that there are few single, simple indicators of lying. Finally, people look in the wrong places and for the wrong cues — fidgeting as opposed to smiling.

Eye Tells: People know about gaze patterns and control them but continuous rapid blinking and unusually intent staring may be signs of lying.

Body Tells: Despite popular beliefs, hand movements and fidgeting are under conscious control and therefore unreliable indexes of lying. However, other neglected things like leg and feet movements and self-touching are better indicators.

Nose Tells: Touching the nose really represents covering the mouth. The ’Pinocchio syndrome’ may be simply due to anxiety and it remains unclear whether vasoconstriction (blood draining from the face/nose) or vasodilatation (blood increasing in the face/nose) occurs when people lie.

Masking Tells: These are masks (often smiles) that people use to cover or mask their negative feelings about lying. The straight or crypto-relaxed face masks seem to work best.

Smiling Tells: Smiles are used extensively by experienced liars because they both make others feel positive and also tend to be less suspicious about them lying. But there are many types of smile — blended, miserable and counterfeit.

Micro Tells: These are very fast, short-lived, micro-moment expressions that are difficult to see live but can be seen on second-by-second video playback.

Talking Tells: Despite the fact that most people believe non-verbal clues are better than verbal clues to lying it actually appears the opposite way around. These include Circumlocution: beating around the bush with long-winded digression and Outlining: broad brush, detail-less account. Liars rarely expand when asked; truth-tellers do.

The bottom line is this: some people are much better than others at detecting deceit. People trained in this area point to a number of subtle and specific behaviours they examine carefully to detect lies. Yet even experts get it wrong sometimes, judging the innocent as guilty and vice versa.


Collett, P. (2003). The Book of Tells. London: Doubleday.

Ekman, P. (2001). Telling Lies: Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Politics, and Marriage. 3rd ed. New York: W.W. Norton.

Vrij, A. (2000). Detecting lies and deceit. Chichester: John Wiley and Sons.