All About Lying (Honest!)

All About Lying (Honest!)


This resource provides some information about the art and science of lying.

Think about a time when you told a lie.

Why did you do it? How did you feel? What happened?

Whether we want to admit it or not, lying is a part of life. Each of us has told a lie or two, whether it was to:

  • get out of trouble (“I didn’t do it.”)
  • avoid hurting someone’s feelings (“You look great!”)
  • get something we want (“I finished my homework, so I’m going to the movie.”)

Unfortunately, some people do it more than others. And they don’t just lie about little things, but about big things as well.

In the following sections, you will learn all about lying—what it is, why you do it, and how you can tell when someone is lying to you.

What is a lie?

  1. A false statement deliberately presented as being true. (“My room is clean.”)
  2. Something meant to deceive or give a wrong impression. (“I’m so sorry you didn’t make the team.”)

Why do we lie?

Lying is considered by many experts to be a natural human tendency. In the same way that children learn to walk, talk, and cry, we also learn to lie at a very early age.

The primary reasons people of all ages lie is to avoid punishment or get something they want.

Fortunately, as we grow older, we become aware that lying can have many painful consequences. Over time, we learn that we can get away with some lies while we can’t get away with others.

Empathy—The Key to Lying

Lying is done through communication. As humans, we communicate in many different ways, both verbally (talking, sounds) and non-verbally (facial and body gestures).

Another important component of communication is the ability to empathize, or understand what another person might be thinking or feeling. Having empathy is necessary to lie, because you have to understand another person’s thoughts and feelings to be able to make them believe your lie.

For example, a friend asks you for help with her homework, but you know she’ll just end up talking about her problems. Because you understand that she values your friendship and don’t want to hurt her feelings, you might tell a lie like, “I’d really like to help you out, but I have chores to do at home.”

Animals, Plants, & Lying

Can animals lie? How about plants? Well, yes and no.

Like humans, animals are able to communicate both verbally and non-verbally. But scientists have found that only higher primates (gorillas and chimps) have the ability to empathize. Because their ability to communicate verbally is limited, gorillas and chimps don’t lie verbally.

And since plants do not communicate, they cannot actually “tell” lies. Both animals and plants do engage in a form of lying called deception, however. In order to survive in the wild, many animals and plants rely on camouflage or altering their appearances in order to deceive predators or attract prey.

Scientists have determined that most animals and plants are not aware that they are being deceptive.

Signs of conscious deception, however, have been found among primates. Studies have shown that chimpanzees both hide food from each other and also seek out food that has been hidden. This proves that the deception is conscious—that each chimp has the empathic ability to sense what the other might be thinking and doing.


Our ability to speak has increased our capacity for communication and, therefore, for lying as well.

Lying can make people distrust each other and can threaten the cooperation needed to maintain a healthy society.

Luckily, the painful consequences of being caught in a lie—having to face anger, rejection, humiliation, or shame from others—help keep lying to a minimum.

Who’s Lying?

When a person lies, his or her body may undergo physical changes such as:

increased heartbeat           stuttering

increased breathing           sweating

higher vocal pitch             irregular face/body movements

Other indicators that could indicate that someone is lying include:

avoiding eye contact          fidgeting arms, hands, and fingers        

reduced blinking               mouth/face touching

head scratching               

Although many of these general “indicators” have been associated with lying, not all people who are lying exhibit them. Even more importantly, not all people who exhibit them are telling lies.

It’s Hard to Tell

Three decades of scientific studies support the conclusion that people have a difficult time telling whether or not someone is lying. It has been found that people can tell the difference between truths and lies only 55 percent of the time—just a little better than making random guesses.

Why is detecting liars so hard?

One view is that our tendency to believe others is stronger than our inclination to distrust them. We may be more likely to see the truth because having that tendency makes personal interactions more successful and contributes to social progress.

Interestingly, studies have shown that some people can tell the difference 70 percent of the time. Usually these are police officers and Secret Service agents who have to distinguish truth from falsehood on a daily basis. A few special people who can tell the difference 80 percent of the time have learned to pay close attention to nonverbal cues and changes in word usage.

To Catch a Liar

With the difficulty in determining who is lying and who is not, police and other law enforcement organizations have tried to find reliable scientific methods to detect liars. Here are some examples:    

The Polygraph Test

This machine was first developed by the police in the 1930s to try to detect if suspected criminals were lying. The process involved attaching tubes, cuffs, and metal plates to the person’s body to measure changes in respiration and blood pressure. And though some experts have suggested that polygraphs today have an accuracy of at least 96 percent, others suggest that the nervousness and fear that a person experiences when hooked up to the machine produce symptoms similar to those of lying. Those people consider the results of the polygraph test to be unreliable.

Thermal Imaging

Thermal imaging technology is based on the concept that, when a person is lying, blood flow increases around the eyes. First developed to identify terrorists at airports, the accuracy of the machine has been brought into question, since flying can make many people nervous and produce physical symptoms similar to those of lying.

Brain Fingerprinting

Another recent lie-detecting technology, brain fingerprinting, involves putting a helmet with various electrodes on a person’s head to measure certain brain waves that show whether an alleged criminal is familiar with certain objects, like a gun used in a robbery. This technology, however, cannot distinguish between the criminal and someone who just observed the crime taking place.

Detecting LiesKeep it Simple!

Even though people and machines are not very well-equipped to detect whether someone is lying, scientific experts suggest that focusing on three areas can help you improve your odds of detecting a lie:

Speech patterns

If you are wondering if someone is lying, look for verbal changes like:

  • more pauses
  • slower speech
  • stuttering
  • elevated pitch

Also pay attention to what the person is saying, since people who are lying tend to give:

  • fewer facts and details      
  • less information about times and places

Lies also are often told differently from normal speech:

  • in a more structured way
  • from beginning to end, chronologically

Facial expressions

Watching a person’s face when he or she is talking can tell you a lot about whether the person is lying, since it is difficult to control facial expressions and the emotions behind them. 

A few facial signs to watch for that may suggest that someone is lying:

  • expressions that don’t match the words that are being said (saying “I love you” with an angry scowl)
  • expressions that don’t match the timing of the words (saying “Wonderful!” and not smiling until a few seconds later)

Here are some other facial signs that a person might be lying:

  • hiding emotions (showing no emotion)
  • masking real emotions with false ones
  • showing emotion when none is felt

Experts also recommend focusing on the eyes and forehead, which are harder areas of the face to control than the mouth and cheeks. It’s in these areas where honest emotion can be more easily detected.

Body movements

When a person attempts to lie, he or she often feels stress about what to say and how to say it. The person also typically tries to hide his/her emotions on his/her face. As a result, the person does not have much awareness or control of the messages his or her body is sending.

This stress a person feels when having to lie can be seen through:

  • nervous movements
  • foot tapping
  • deep breathing                
  • strong eye contact
  • overly controlled movements

Remember that verbal, facial, and body signs are only suggestions that a person might be lying. Your intuition and ability to empathize are the best tools you have to use.

True Lies

A final point to consider when thinking about lying: What is the truth? Is there such a thing as “absolute truth”?

One expert suggests that some people who lie a lot can actually come to believe that their lies are true (“true lies”). So a statement can be true for the person making it and false for other people and in reality.

How confusing is that?

As a result, it is often as hard to determine what is true and what is not. All we can do is be aware and keep trying to tell the difference.


ABC Online. Natural Born Liars. Retrieved from http://www.abc.net.au/science/features/liars/default.htm.

Science News Online. Deception Detection, v. 166 (5).

The American Heritage Dictionary. (2000). New York: Houghton Mifflin Co.

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