How to Spot a Lie

Poor Mr. Pink. If only he could recognize the language of a liar (using third person pronouns, running at the mouth, and lots of profanity), maybe he wouldn’t have trusted Mr. White. Then again, all of the reservoir dogs did that.

These are the signs of a liar, according to new research published in Discourse Processes. The purpose of this study was to sort out not only the differences between liars and truth-tellers, but bald-faced liars and equivocators—that is, people who lie by omission.

For their study, the authors set up a variation of the ultimate game, a common experiment amongst economists and game theorists. In the traditional version of the game, one player, the allocator, receives a sum of money to divvy up with the second player, the receiver. The receiver gets to accept or reject an offer, and if the receiver chooses to reject the offer, they both get nothing. Because receivers generally reject offers that they perceive as unfair, usually allocators slip the sum 50-50.

For this study, the authors made two changes. Firstly, allocators were given either $5 or $30, and the receivers had no way of knowing how much was given. Therefore, an allocator could offer $2.50, and the receiver had no way of knowing if that was a fair offer or a terrible one. Secondly, if the receiver chose to reject an offer, the receiver automatically received either $7.50 or $1.25, depending upon the initial amount granted, and the allocator received nothing. The authors then taped the negotiations and analysed the results.

  • Seventy per cent of the allocators told the full truth and offered an even split. The thirty per cent who lied were then classified as bald-faced liars or “deceivers by omission”, meaning that they equivocated and did not tell the whole truth.
  • Bald-faced liars tended to use more words (of greater length), which the study’s authors dubbed the “Pinocchio effect”, saying that “Just like Pinocchio’s nose, the number of words grew with the lie.”
  • Liars who deceived by omission, on the other hand, used very few words and short sentences.
  • Liars used more third person pronouns than truth tellers, possibly as a way to distance themselves from the lie.
  • Liars used more complex sentences than truth tellers.
  • On average, liars swore more than truth tellers.
  • Most interesting, bald-faced liars had a better success rate than those who chose to lie by omission.

So, there you go. If you’re trying to suss out a lie, look out for the wordy guy who runs his mouth and swears a lot. And if you’re trying to tell a lie, go big or go home.



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