How to Spot a Liar or Just Someone Trying to Avoid the Truth
Look at the situation to know who’s lying, or who's not telling the truth
Posted Aug 09, 2016
It’s been said that everybody lies, but the question is when, to whom, and why? And if someone is lying, how can you tell? The detection of deception is big business with big stakes. Imagine if you could tell whether your partner really did have to work late, whether your boss really intends to promote you, or whether the insurance policy you’re buying will protect you under all those conditions it says it will. Children’s lies are ridiculously easy to spot, but as we get older, we get better at disguising the truth. We don’t necessarily get better at spotting it. New research in the field of communications provides cues for deciding if someone is lying or at least avoiding the truth.
One of the problems we face in trying to spot the liar is that, for most of us, the default assumption we have is that other people are being truthful. This “truth bias,” as defined by Ohio State University’s David Clementson (2016), causes us to give people the benefit of the doubt even though they may not deserve it. You’ll enter into almost any interaction assuming that the people you’re interacting with mean what they say. Other than extreme cynics, we assume the best out of the people we are in a relationship with, work with, or even bump into in the elevator. Communication theorists call this “Truth Default Theory” or “TDT.”
According to Clementson, the one exception to the truth bias involves politicians. We actually believe very little of what they say according to the polls and articles that Clementson cites: “Politicians have a reputation for being more deceptive than any class of people in the United States… they are evasive by nature” (p. 248). Quantified by Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness” scale or the ratings in the media employing “Pants on Fire” or “Pinnochio” metaphors, this general rule of thumb means that we should pretty much discount everything a politician has ever said, says, or will say in the future.
However, are deceptiveness and evasiveness the same? Think about your own relationships. A deceptive partner will claim having to work late, but an evasive one will just fail to tell you every detail of his or her whereabouts on the night in question. Either way, you’re being given a false impression, but are they equally despicable? For a politician, evasiveness amounts to failing to provide a definite “yes” or “no” to a thorny question. Deception means saying that you donated to charity when, in fact, you did not.
It’s pretty risky for a politician to tell an out-and-out lie because inevitably, someone will turn up the tax returns showing the lack of charitable donations. It’s also risky, though, for a politician to avoid evasiveness when to give a direct answer means losing an important voting bloc. In our normal relationships with others, you may similarly try to avoid offending people you know don’t agree with you if they’re important to your well-being by not admitting your true feelings. However, if your job involves committing to one position (as is true for elected officials), we’ve come to expect straight talk.
There's one significant difference between what you and I talk about in our everyday lives and what politicians engage in on a regular basis, particularly with the media. When you’re talking to someone in casual conversation who evades a difficult question, you're unlikely to call the person out. Unless you’re interviewing a candidate for a job or competitive opportunity when a stress interview may be part of the screening, you won’t challenge a casual conversational partner who slides down the middle between two opposing viewpoints. We do this all the time to politicians and, just as importantly, politicians do it to each other.
Here’s where so-called “equivocation theory,” one of the concepts identified in the Clementson article, can be helpful. The theory proposes that “the individual providing the equivocation is not responsible for the equivocation, but the communication situation necessitates equivocation” (p. 249). Avoidance-avoidance, when any answer will get you into trouble, is the classic situation that provokes equivocation. In other words, no one—not even a politician—is inherently deceptive. A no-win situation can provoke evasiveness in anybody.
An additional situational factor involves someone labeling a person as evasive. It’s common in political debates (but not everyday life) for people to call each other out on their lack of (or apparent lack of) truthiness. In finding that a coworker told the boss what the boss wanted to hear, what would you do? If you want to make sure that the coworker never trusts or confides in you again, you’ll be sure to point out this out. If you want to keep harmonious relationships in the workplace, you’ll keep your observations to yourself. Politicians, and the journalists who question them, operate by a different set of social codes. It’s almost part of their job description to accuse people of lying, evasiveness, and inconsistencies.
Knowing that the situation can shape the apparent truthfulness or candor of people in the public eye can help guide you to decide on what’s true and what’s not true in what the people you know are saying. For example, Clementson discovered that we’re all too easily fooled by appearance in judging whether someone is lying. According to TDT, we should ignore all the extraneous aspects of a communicator’s appearance (such as what color suit a politician wears to an event) and instead dig down deep into the content of what the person is saying. The eyes are less important than the words in detecting deception.
Now let’s make your truth detection job even tougher. You don’t exactly believe Politician A or B, but when B accuses A of lying or being evasive, suddenly you believe B. In what other universe, than politics, would such things happen? As Clementson observed, “As no-win situations go, one cannot get much deeper into an avoidance-avoidance conflict than political debate settings in which politicians tell their salient ingroup that the opponent dodged the question” (p. 263).
Clementson’s analysis of all the U.S. Presidential debates between 1996 and 2012 suggested that no one party was more likely to be evasive than the other, nor to charge the other with evasiveness. The analysis did uncover instance after instance of evasiveness charges being hurled with little restraint. It didn’t even matter if what the politician said was evasive (off-topic) or not.
Believe it or not, the conclusion that Clementson arrived at was not that politicians are nasty people, or that they lie or avoid the truth more than ordinary mortals. Instead, his analysis tells us a lot more about our own biases. We don’t think as much about the message as about the labels that messages receives from others, and we rarely take the situation into account that puts politicians into that no-win dilemma.
If you’re trying to decipher the truthiness of the people in your own life, there’s an object lesson here. When you put people on the spot in a high-stakes situation, they may try to wriggle out of a definite answer. If someone calls the person you care about a liar, or at least a truth-evader, you may be swayed into drawing the wrong conclusions. Dig down deep into the message of the people communicating to you, and it’s far more likely that the truth will win out. After all, isn’t that how you’d wish to be judged?
Clementson, D. E. (2016). Why do we think politicians are so evasive? Insight from theories of equivocation and deception, with a content analysis of U.S. Presidential debates, 1996-2012. Journal Of Language And Social Psychology, 35(3), 247-267. doi:10.1177/0261927X15600