Lying Is a Social Skill, But Should You Use It?

How do socially-skilled people lie so successfully?

Posted Apr 28, 2020

It is clear that successful lying is a well-developed social skill. People who are effective at other areas of communication skill also tend to make better liars. In fact, it starts very young. Research by psychologist Robert Feldman found that the higher an adolescent’s (aged 11 to 16) social skills, the more successful they were at fooling adults with their lies.

How do successful liars do it?

Our own research suggests that socially skilled people simply look more honest than those lacking social skills/competence. They speak quickly, with few speech hesitations or errors (“ums “and “uhs”), they maintain eye contact, and they tend to have more pleasant, positive-looking faces (think of the smooth, fast-talking salesperson). As a result, they are more believable both when telling the truth and when lying.

What else do skilled, successful liars do?

They seem to be better at coming up with a more plausible, believable story than less socially-skilled people in the same situation. Their lies tend to simply make more sense.

Here is an important question: So, if some people are more skilled liars, should they use that skill?

A first consideration is the ethics of lying, and that seems straightforward. It is wrong to deceive people. But, are there instances where we might want to lie? What about lying to protect another’s feelings? (“Yes, dear, your [hideous] haircut looks great!”) 

The problem with lying, even when trying to protect others, is that the liar can eventually be viewed as disingenuous or inauthentic. And, lying successfully can become a “slippery slope,” whereby success in fooling others, leads to a reliance on lying as a strategy to get you out of difficult interactions and discussions.

Think about former President Bill Clinton and his lie about the affair with intern Monica Lewinsky that led to his impeachment. Smooth-talking Bill may have relied on his prior success at deception in order to get him out of this tough situation. Owning up, and telling the truth, and asking forgiveness for his transgression, would have avoided impeachment and would have served him better in the long run.

What about leaders who lie?

Leaders are often in situations where they have to decide whether they should lie (e.g., withhold information), or tell the truth. While lying may benefit the leader in the short term, when leaders are caught in lies it can affect their credibility in the long-term.

Integrity and honesty are among the top characteristics people want to see in their leaders. Indeed, a number of theories of exemplary leadership, such as authentic leadership theory and virtuous leadership emphasize the importance of being open and honest with followers (i.e., no hidden agendas or withholding important information).

In leadership, and in life, honesty is the best policy.

References

Feldman, R.S., Tomasian, J.C., & Coats, E.J. (1999). Nonverbal Deception Abilities and Adolescents' Social Competence: Adolescents with Higher Social Skills are Better Liars. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 23, 237-249.

Riggio, R.E., Tucker, J.S., & Widaman, K.F. (1987). Verbal and nonverbal cues as mediators of deception ability. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 11, 126-145.

Riggio, R.E., & Friedman, H.S. (1983). Individual differences and cues to deception. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 45, 899-915.

Riggio, R.E., Tucker, J.S., & Throckmorton, B. (1987). Social skills and deception ability. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 13, 568-577.