But surprisingly small factors about someone, – where we meet them, what they wear, what their voices sound like, whether their posture mimics ours, if they mention the names of people we know or admire – can enhance their credibility to the extent that it actually nullifies our ability to make sound judgments about them.
Our own unconscious biases, vanities, self-deceptions and desires only add to the hijacking of our reason.
So here are my six reasons why we suck at spotting liars:
1. We trust people just because they remind us of ourselves.
There is a well-known principle in social psychology that people define themselves in terms of social groupings: Any group that people feel part of is an “in-group” and any group that excludes them an “out-group.”
Similarities make us feel comfortable; differences, on the other hand, make us a little wary. When we see people as part of an out-group, we are more likely to judge them as untrustworthy. Deceivers with whom we have things in common are much more likely to gain our trust – regardless of how little they may deserve it.
2. We disbelieve people who act “inappropriately.”
We have a tendency to make judgments about another person’s integrity based on our ideas of appropriate behaviour. This shows up in lie detection when we believe that we know how we’d act if we were telling the truth – and that other truthful people would/should behave the same way. In reality, there is no universal behaviour that signals deception or honesty. People are individuals with their own unique set of verbal and nonverbal behaviors. Which is why establishing a person’s baseline (their normal body language and speech patterns under relatively stress-free circumstances) is so important when trying to separate truthfulness from deceit.
3. We are far less skeptical of attractive, charming people.
Unfair though it may be, and even if we proclaim otherwise, we judge people by their appearance. And we automatically assign favorable traits to good-looking people, judging them to be more likeable, competent, and honest than unattractive people.
4. We instinctively distrust people with low eyebrows.
By studying people’s reactions to a range of artificially generated faces, researchers in Princeton’s psychology department found that faces with high inner eyebrows, pronounced cheekbones, and a wide chin struck people as trustworthy. Conversely, faces with low inner brows, shallow cheekbones and a thin chin were deemed untrustworthy.
5. We look for inaccurate body language “tells.”
The biggest body language myth about liars is that they avoid eye contact. While some liars find it difficult to lie while looking you in the eyes, many liars, especial the most brazen, actually overcompensate to “prove” that they are not lying by making strong, direct eye contact and holding it steadily.
Another popular misconception is that looking to the right indicates lying, while looking left suggests truthfulness. The University of Edinburgh completed three different studies to show that there was no correlation between the direction of eye movement and whether the subject was telling the truth or lying.
Rapid eye blinks can be mistaken for a sign of deception. And it’s true that when nervous, people blink their eyes more often. But deceivers blink less under the increased mental effort of creating a lie, remembering the lie, inhibiting the truth, and preparing for follow-up questions. A study at Portsmouth University shows that a person’s blink rate slows down as he/she decides to lie and stays low through the lie. Then it increases rapidly (sometimes up to eight times normal rate) after the lie.
We also tend to suspect people who squirm or fidget, believing that their nervousness is a sign of deceit. We forget that the first physical reaction to stress (before the urge to fight or flee) is to freeze – which means that liars may actually reduce movement and gestures – not increase them.
6. We want to believe some liars and lies.
Brain-imaging studies show that when we have a personal stake in the outcome of any event, our brains automatically include our desires and aspirations in our assessments. The process is called motivated reasoning, and it utilizes a different physical pathway in the brain (one that includes parts of the limbic system) than the pathway used when we are objectively analyzing data.
Subliminally, we are all highly susceptible to the power of self-interest. But, because motivated reasoning is unconscious, we may sincerely believe that we are making unbiased choices when we are really making decisions that are self-serving.
While honesty may be the best policy, that doesn’t mean we should be distrustful of everyone we meet. In fact, a study at the University of Toronto found those who are inclined to trust people are less likely to get duped. But we also shouldn’t blindly trust just because someone is attractive, charming, influential, or looks a lot like us. Probably the best advice is the old adage, “trust, but verify.”
Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD, is an executive coach, consultant, and international keynote speaker at corporate, government, and association events. She is also the author of STAND OUT: How to Build Your Leadership Presence.