Lie to me: Liars harder to detect than most believe, study finds

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EDINBURGH, Scotland — Feel like you’re a fairly good judge of character and can pick out a dishonest individual within a matter of minutes? There are a number of stereotypical giveaways people usually look out for when it comes to suspicious people: shifty eyes, fidgety hands, etc. However, a new study by researchers at the University of Edinburgh finds that the typical clues we keep an eye out for and associate with liars are actually produced much more often when someone is telling the truth.

In fact, the study indicates that skilled liars are typically well-versed in successfully suppressing these supposed giveaways in order to avoid detection. All in all, the findings seem to suggest that spotting a liar is much easier said than done.

For their experiment, University of Edinburgh psychologists created an interactive two-player computer game to analyze the types of speech and gestures people use while lying, as well as to identify the clues listeners usually pick up on as evidence that a statement isn’t true.

The game was a treasure hunt consisting of 24 pairs of players. Each team consisted of a speaker and a listener, with the speaker’s objective being to mislead the listener about the location of a virtual treasure. The listener’s objective, on the other hand, was to determine if the speakers were liars or if they telling the truth about the treasure’s location.

Researchers coded more than 1,100 statements made by speakers against 19 potential lying cues such as speech pauses, shifts in eye gaze, and eyebrow movements. Then, these cues were analyzed to determine which ones were commonly picked up on by other players, and which cues were most likely to be actual giveaways of a real lie and not just a stereotype.

The authors found that the players were generally efficient at picking up on the 19 potential cues. In fact, the listening players made a judgment on whether or not a statement was true within a few hundred milliseconds of hearing a common cue. However, the cues they most frequently picked up on as red flags for lying were more likely to be used if the speaker was telling the truth.

“The findings suggests that we have strong preconceptions about the behavior associated with lying, which we act on almost instinctively when listening to others,” says lead researcher Dr. Martin Corley of the University of Edinburgh’s School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences in a media release. “However, we don’t necessarily produce these cues when we’re lying, perhaps because we try to suppress them.”

The study is published in the Journal of Cognition.

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