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Top Ten Secrets of Effective Liars

How to lie and get away with it

Key points

  • One study showed that the most successful liars are better at controlling their nonverbal signals, such as eye contact and gestures.
  • One thing that tends to trip up liars is when they give different information to different people, who then compare notes.
  • Noticeable fear and guilt can indicate someone is lying, because for many people, lying is uncomfortable.

As I've written earlier, human beings have an innate skill at dishonesty. And with good reason: being able to manipulate the expectations of those around us is a key survival trait for social animals like ourselves. Indeed, a 1999 study by psychologist Robert Feldman at the University of Massachusetts showed that the most popular kids were also the most effective liars. Just because our aptitude is hardwired doesn't mean it can't improve with practice and skill. Here are 10 techniques that top-notch liars use to maximize their effectiveness. (By the way, this information is offered as a way to help detect deceit in others, not to practice it yourself. Honestly!)

#1 Have a reason.

"Prisons are filled with bad liars," says psychologist Charles Ford, author of the book Lies! Lies! Lies!. "The good liars are out running HMOs." So what's the big difference? Basically, says Ford, the trick is to lie as little as possible—only when you actually have something to gain. "Pathological liars can't stop themselves from lying, so they tell a lot of little lies and wind up getting caught," he says. Truly expert fabricators, on the other hand, save their ammunition—they don't bother to lie unless it's going to get them something they really want.

#2 Lay your groundwork.

Don't wait until you're under the interrogation lamp to start putting your story together. A 1990 study by psychologist Bill Flanagan showed that liars who had worked out the details of their stories beforehand had significantly more success than those who hadn't. As in everything, practice makes perfect. "It's easier to catch someone in a lie the first time they tell it," says psychologist Dr. Cynthia Cohen.

#3 Tell the truth, misleadingly.

The hardest lies to catch are those which aren't actually lies. You're telling the truth, but in a way that leaves a false impression. Technically, it's only a prevarication—about half a sin. A 1990 study of pathological liars in New York City found that those who could avoid follow-up questions were significantly more successful at their deceptions.

#4 Know your target.

Good liars have the same gift as good communicators: the ability to get inside the listener's head. Empathy not only clues you into what your subject wants to hear, it will help you avoid stepping onto tripwires that will trigger their suspicions. "To make a credible lie, you need to take into account the perspective of your target," says Carolyn Saarni, co-editor of the book Lying and Deception in Everyday Life. "Know what they know. Be aware of their interests and activities so you can cover your tracks."

#5 Keep your facts straight.

"One of the problems of successful lying is that it's hard work," says psychologist Michael Lewis. "You have to be very consistent in doing it." That means nailing down the details. Write down notes if you have to. "One of the things that trips people up is that they give different information to different people, who then start talking about it and comparing notes," says Dr. Gini Graham Scott, author of The Truth About Lying.

#6 Stay focused.

"When I'm trying to catch a liar, I watch to see how committed they are to what they're telling me," says Sgt. John Yarbrough, interrogation expert with the LA Sheriff Department's homicide bureau. "If I accuse someone of lying, and they're not very committed to the statement they just made, a red flag goes up."

One of the reasons most people make bad liars is that they find lying a deeply unpleasant activity. Fear and guilt are evident in their facial expressions. They want to get the process over as quickly as possible, so they show relief when their interrogator changes the topic. That's a dead giveaway. Really good liars, on the other hand, actually enjoy the process of deceiving other people. "The best liars don't show any shame or remorse because they don't feel it," says Cohen. "They get a thrill out of actively misleading others. They're good at it, and they enjoy the challenge."

#7: Watch your signals.

It's folk wisdom that people fidget, touch their noses, stutter, and break eye contact when they lie—the proverbial "shifty-eyed" look. But research has shown that just isn't so. In his 1999 study of high school students, Feldman found that nonverbal signals were crucial in determining who got away with telling lies. "The successful kinds were better at controlling their nonverbal signals, things like the amount of eye contact and how much they gestured," he says.

#8: Turn up the pressure.

If your target has clearly become suspicious, it's time to raise the emotional stakes. "The best liars are natural manipulators," says Sgt. Yarbrough. He cites as a perfect example the scene in Basic Instinct where Sharon Stone is brought to the cop station for questioning and winds up flashing everyone a glimpse of her Lesser Antilles. "She was turning them on," Yarbrough explains, "and that's a form of manipulation—using sexual or emotional arousal to distract the interviewer."

#9: Counterattack.

The fact is, just as most of us are uncomfortable telling lies, most are uncomfortable accusing others. This discomfort can be used in the liar's favor. "You'll often see politicians respond to accusations with aggression," says Stan Walters, author of The Truth About Lying: Everyday Techniques for Dealing with Deception. "What they'll do is drive critics away from the issue, so they're forced to gather up their resources to fight another scrimmage."

#10: Bargain.

Even when the jig is up, liars can often escape the worst by using a process psychologists call bargaining. "You want to soften, alleviate, or totally eliminate feelings of responsibility for the lie," explains researcher Mary DePalma. "If you can decrease responsibility for blame and the anger that goes with it, you're really looking at a much better outcome.

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