Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

4 Reasons Why Liars Are So Successful at Fooling Us

From lying con artists to cheating spouses, why do liars get away with it?

Key points

  • We trust too much. Research tells us there is a tendency to believe more than disbelieve.
  • Although we expect people to be honest, most people lie at least once a day.
  • Research consistently shows that people are poor detectors of lies and deception.

From internet scammers to high-pressure salespeople, to our own friends and relations, we are often fooled by lies and deception. Research on the psychology of deception tells us why we are so often duped. In fact, there are four good reasons why we are easily deceived.

1. The Trusting Bias. Research is clear that there is a general, human tendency to believe what others tell us. In fact, in our own research, when people were told they would be watching videotapes of lies and truths, with 50% of each, nearly all participants judged well more than 50% of the videos to be truthful. Because of this bias, we may be prone to believing lies that strangers tell us, and perhaps even more trusting of those we know and love.

2. Lying Is Ubiquitous. Research by nonverbal communication expert (and PT blogger) Bella DePaulo asked people to report their lies, and the average was two lies per day, with a small percentage reporting lying 15 or more times per day. [Of course, people may be lying about lying!] In any case, because there are many lies occurring, and coupled with our trusting bias, we typically aren’t very suspicious or skeptical about what people are telling us.

3. We’re Poor Detectors. The research is quite consistent. People are remarkably poor at detecting when someone is lying. Even the very best detectors of deception are only slightly better than chance at discriminating lies from truths. Why are we so bad? We rely on stereotypic cues that we think will tell if someone is lying, but they actually don’t work. For example, there is a common belief that a liar can’t “look you in the eye,” so many of us use lack of eye contact to discover a lie. In our research, however, liars tended to engage in more eye contact than did truth-tellers. We also often focus on the wrong cues. For example, cues of “nervousness” that we associate with lying aren’t always accurate. Some people may “naturally” give off cues of nervousness that are misinterpreted as dishonesty, while others may be self-assured and stoic, and may mislead us to believe that they are being honest.

4. Practice Makes Perfect. An important reason why dishonest people can lie successfully is that they are so good at it. Success at deception is a learned, and sophisticated, social skill. Chronic liars learn, over time, how to lie successfully. They study others’ behavior to see if their lies are being believed or arousing suspicion. They can then adjust their story, and their nonverbal behavior, to appear more honest. Coupled with the trusting bias, this can make the liar's job rather easy.

References

DePaulo, B. M., Kashy, D. A., Kirkendol, S. E., Wyer, M. M., & Epstein, J. A. (1996). Lying in everyday life. Journal of personality and social psychology, 70(5), 979.

Ekman, P. (2009). Telling lies: Clues to deceit in the marketplace, politics, and marriage (revised edition). WW Norton & Company.

Riggio, R. E., & Friedman, H. S. (1983). Individual differences and cues to deception. Journal of personality and Social Psychology, 45(4).

advertisement