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A New Way to Expose Liars

New research on separating liars from their cover-ups.

Key points

  • When people who have lied are threatened with exposure, they often craft additional lies, which then reinforces the fear of exposure.
  • New research on deception shows the conditions that can prompt people to be honest.
  • Drawing on people's best nature can help people spot others' lies and their attempts to cover up those lies.

You’ve undoubtedly heard the expression that “everyone lies,” a truism based on decades of psychological research on deception. However, this doesn’t help when it comes to discerning whether someone you know is trying to pull one over on you. Indeed, what makes lying even harder to detect is the fact that liars do everything they can to cover up their lies if someone threatens to expose them.

The topic of lies and cover-ups is in the news once again with some very key instances. The FX Series currently airing in the U.S., "American Crime: Impeachment," brings viewers back to the 1998 trial of President Bill Clinton. The case against Clinton rested both on his relationship with the White House intern Monica Lewinsky, as well as on his repeated cover-ups given under oath.

A second example comes from the reports made public in the news show "60 Minutes," documenting Facebook’s alleged attempts to cover up information that could be detrimental to the company. The October 3, 2021 interview with former employee Frances Haugen revealed that “The complaints say Facebook's own research shows that it amplifies hate, misinformation and political unrest—but the company hides what it knows.” Here again, there is the original problem, namely the internal findings of the research itself, and the cover-up in hiding the reports.

As Haugen went on to observe: “The thing I saw at Facebook over and over again was there were conflicts of interest between what was good for the public and what was good for Facebook. And Facebook, over and over again, chose to optimize for its own interests, like making more money.”

The Dynamics of the Cover-Up

In this quote, Haugen points to a type of lying in which people act in ways to maximize their own profits or benefits when they are out of the public eye. When threatened with exposure, they heap further lies on top of the original lie. As each level of deception is added, the risks of exposure increase even more, as does the extent to which the truth becomes distorted.

According to Tilman Fries and colleagues of the Berlin Social Science Center (2021), “Lying is central to economic interactions with assymetric information.” This means that if you know something that someone else doesn’t, and that knowledge will benefit you financially or otherwise, there is a strong force that compels you to keep that information to yourself. The case of the potential Facebook cover-up is a prime example of this economic situation, in that the revelations of its attempts to hide its problems from the public pits profit against transparency.

In your own life, incentives to hide a lie can clearly also emerge, though at a much reduced level. Let's say that you’re planning to sell a piece of slightly used furniture to a neighbor because it no longer fits in your home. Only you know what the piece actually cost and because you’ve kept it in such good shape, it actually looks far pricier than its actual value. You could, if you followed the principle articulated by Fries et al., charge considerably more for it and hope that your neighbor will accept your price as honest. However, as one might expect, the neighbor starts asking questions, such as how old it is, whether it’s solid wood or veneer, and what you originally paid for it. Because your original price was so inflated, and because you don’t want to look dishonest, you have to come up with more fictitious answers in order to support the original lie.

Now that you can see how easy it is to fall down that slippery slope of lies and cover-ups, imagine the situation was reversed and you were the potential buyer. Would you be so fooled by those layers of deception to find out the item’s real value? You want to look like you trust your neighbor, so it’s quite likely that you’ll stop probing and go ahead and purchase the item at its original price.

It’s this willingness to suspend disbelief that allows a liar to escape exposure. As it turns out, the researchers point out, when there is a “psychological cost of lying; all else equal, a large fraction of people prefers not to lie.” Increase the cost, and the average person will tell the truth or, if choosing to lie, decides to weigh the psychological cost as being less of a strain than the financial.

Predicting Who Will Lie with a Simple Game

Fries and his colleagues tested the limits on how much people would lie by putting them in situations involving varying degrees of oversight and accountability. The simple game they used for this purpose rests on the veridicality of a participant’s report of the outcome of a die roll. Each roll of the die will involve a payout of twice the amount (in Euros) of the value shown on the die (i.e. 2 Euros for rolling a one), with a maximum of 12 Euros. What varies in the experimental game is the presence (or not) of the experimenter while the die roll is occurring and whether the participant's reporting of results is available to the experimenter at the end of the session.

Taking these factors into account, the Berlin research team generated five separate conditions: “Super Observed” (die roll in front of experimenter, experimenter records result), “Observed” (die roll occurs in front of the experimenter, and participant records results), “Basic” (experimenter doesn’t see the die roll and participant records results), “Double Blind” (the experimenter isn’t present at all, and participants pay themselves without showing the record sheet’), “Super Double Blind” (same as Double Blind, but there are fake Euros in the envelope to disguise any cheating). In the first three conditions, the experimenter sees the reporting sheet and remaining coins, but in the final two, the experimenter never sees the sheet at all, making the lie essentially invisible.

The sample of nearly 700 participants completed the die roll task based on the condition to which they were assigned. Those in the first three conditions checked in with the experimenter to make sure the pay they gave themselves fit with the reports, and those in one of the blind conditions took their money and left, after submitting a receipt.

The model of lying that informed the Tries et al. study proposes that “the degree of observability may affect the individual’s willingness to lie.” The question is whether observability of the die roll would have different effects on lying than observability of the report. The researchers determined whether participants were lying by comparing their die roll results with the results that would occur by chance.

Turning to the results, it was the observability of the die roll rather than the report which had a stronger impact on the extent to which participants over-reported their results. As the authors concluded, “when lies are detected for sure, participants no longer have an incentive to obscure them by reporting a non-payoff minimizing state.” In particular, moving from the Observed to the Basic condition decreases the size of cover-ups, or lies conditional on lying. Participants, according to this view, want to look honest in keeping with the “social signaling” that occurs when the experimenter is watching them.

Surprisingly, the visibility of the reports had no impact on lying above and beyond the effect of the experimenter's presence during the die roll. As the authors noted, “we consider that some participants might have internalized a preference for appearing honest and might see themselves as ‘their own audience.’”

However, it’s not as if the participants could claim to be wearing halos on their heads. In the Basic condition, participants engaged in a high level of cheating. To minimize being caught, when participants chose to lie, they reported rolling a “5” rather than a “6,” a situation that constituted a “partial lie.” They lied, but they essentially covered up the lie by appearing not to be too greedy. The high degree of lying was indicated by the average die roll, when participants reported their own results, was slightly over 5.

What the Die Roll Game Can Teach You About Exposing Cover-Ups

Sadly, the Berlin Social Science Research Center team’s findings support the familiar observation that “everybody lies,” at least partially. If they think no one else is watching, most people will try to maximize their own rewards. Then, if they think no one will suspect what they’ve done, they’ll lie about that as well.

Clearly, you can’t watch everyone who might be lying to you while they’re in the act. That person overcharging you for the furniture has the time and the resources to concoct their own version of the truth, and you will be none the wiser. Your only recourse is to capitalize on the tendency that at least some of the participants had to serve as their own “audiences.” Appeals to their higher nature could stimulate the kind of social signaling of honesty that could outweigh their desire to maximize their profits. At the same time, as shown in previous research that Fries et al. cite, it doesn't hurt to suggest ways in which you might share what they do with your mutual friends, adding the public to the individual's private audience.

To sum up, it is probably the case that high-stakes lies and covers-ups seem to follow their own internal logic, making it unlikely that public figures will admit the truth unless they’re forced to do so. When the liars are people in your own life, you can at least take solace in this new way to discourage the deception before the cover-up becomes necessary.

Facebook image: YAKOBCHUK VIACHESLAV/Shutterstock


Fries, T., Gneezy, U., Kajackaite, A., & Parra, D. (2021). Observability and lying. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 189, 132–149. https://doi-org/10.1016/j.jebo.2021.06.038