5 Absolute Truths About Lies

Lie detection may be harder than it looks, and that could be a good thing.

Posted Sep 23, 2012

Catalin Petolea/Shutterstock
Source: Catalin Petolea/Shutterstock

Can you ever be absolutely certain if someone is either telling the truth or lying? A recent story on human lie detectors featured the accurate subtitle, “The death of the dead give-away.” Often, we assume that a particular facial twitch or manner of speaking is an infallible giveaway that someone is lying. While there are some clues to deception, they are probabilistic associations, not dead give-aways.

Based on my research, here are 5 truths about lie detection: 

  1. There is no perfect clue to deception. There is no behavior that always occurs when people are lying and never occurs at other times. The dead give-away never did exist and never will. Pinocchio, your nose is toast!
  2. There are no perfect human lie-detectors. Select people claim to be “wizards” at detecting deception. Charlie Bond and I cast doubt on that claim in our book, Is Anyone Really Good at Detecting Lies: Professional Papers. No one is right all the time about whether another person is lying.
  3. Neuroscience does not provide certainty in lie-detection. Brain scans, fMRI, neuroimaging and such are popular, but they will not offer perfect deception-detection capabilities. Lies are too diverse for that. The emotions, cognitions, and self-presentational goals of different kinds of lies are just too different to support a single telltale brain signature. Plus, it is impractical to depend on this sort of expensive and unwieldy technology. 
  4. There will always be worry about liars and their lies. Plagiarism, big-time lying, and even scientific fraud seem rampant these days. But investigate historic cultural critics and you will find many of the same concerns about casual attitudes toward the truth.
  5. People will never stop lying. Some people lie less often than others, and it is possible that overall rates of lying change some over time. But deception will never end. There are too many rewards for lying, and those perks are not just materialistic or self-centered, either. Most often, the rewards are psychological (rather than, say, financial), and in some (though not most) instances, the person who benefits most from your lies is someone else.

While many sectors would love to see perfect lie-detection—in the pursuit of alleged murderers, for instance—perfect lie-detection for every kind of lie in every situation would be inconvenient. Would you really want other people to know—always—how you really feel, regardless of what you say about how you feel? Would you want them to be able to discern the truth about all of the facts of your life? Or conversely, would you want to know what other people really do think of you, all of the time and in every situation? 

Many lies are heinous and cannot be justified in any way. But beware of the urge to find the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, always and forever. The cliché, “Be careful what you wish for,” was written for yearnings such as that one.

Notes: My books on deception include Behind the Door of Deceit: Understanding the Biggest Liars in Our Lives; The Hows and Whys of Lies; The Lies We Tell and the Clues We Miss: Professional Papers; and Is Anyone Really Good at Detecting Lies: Professional Papers (co-authored with Charles F. Bond Jr.). They are all available in print or as e-books. Other links are here.

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