Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire!

How to tell if someone is lying to you

Posted Feb 14, 2016

 Mt. Rushmore, Wikipedia, Public Domain
Source: mage: Mt. Rushmore, Wikipedia, Public Domain

A young George Washington proclaimed, "I cannot tell a lie," and Lincoln was called "Honest Abe." Can we conclude from these two sterling examples that American politicians aspire to be truthful? So far in this election year, I would have to say, not so much. 

A lie is a lie, of course, but some are worse than others. Lesser offenses are called fibbing, fudging, exaggerating, and stretching the truth. I prefer the term "error of omission," but that won't stand up in court if you have sworn to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. In that case, an error of omission is called perjury. 

Outside of a courtroom (or a political campaign), is there ever a time when a lie can be excused? In my opinion the answer is yes. For example, it would be kinder to lie than to hurt someone's feelings––as in when a friend asks, "How do I look?" or "Does this make me look fat?" Telling her what you really think might be cruel, so in that case lying is simply being tactful.  

Children are notorious storytellers, George Washington being a possible exception to the rule. The earliest lie I can remember telling was at the age of eleven, when I was trying to persuade a boardinghouse landlady to hire me as a maid for the summer. World War II had created an acute manpower shortage, and domestic workers were flocking to the shipyards and factories for better paying jobs, so she was interviewing school kids to fill the void. The lie I told was about my age. With fingers crossed behind my back, I said that I was "going on" thirteen.  Seeing that I hadn't turned to stone with that one, I decided to press my luck when she asked for my Christian name.  I told her it was Eileen, because I have never liked being called Evelyn.  Anyway, Eileen is my middle name, so I rationalized that it was only half a lie. This is all recounted in my play, and later novel, Boardinghouse Stew.  Both are based on a true story. (Cross my heart.)

How can you tell if someone is lying to you? There is an interesting new book out, called You're Lying! by Lena Sisco. Her resume includes a surprising and, I would have thought, very unusual job for a woman––that of interrogating suspected terrorists and other detainees at Guantanamo Bay. A promotional blurb for the book touts the author's ability to build rapport, read body language, and employ effective questioning techniques which led to numerous successes that saved American lives. Was the now-controversial waterboarding one of her techniques, I wonder?

In any case, she has come up with some clues that the rest of us might find useful for detecting when someone is telling a lie. If the old adage "knowledge is power" is correct, then it's worth having a look at them.  

Body language is a dead giveaway, according to this former interrogator. Liars often avoid eye contact with their listener, look down when speaking, or angle their bodies away from the person they are speaking to. When pressed for details, they may get fidgety or agitated. And in what she calls "the Pinnochio effect," she says liars often rub or wipe their noses. 

There seems to be a physical component to that last point. It may sound absurd, but research has found that the nose actually gets warmer when a person is lying. (I'm not making this up!) Though the connection between an itchy nose and a lie isn't fully understood, experts have concluded that it may be due to the increased mental effort it requires to concoct a plausible story. The more complex the lie, the more mental effort it takes to spin, and the nose heats up accordingly.  

Another point that I found interesting: Basically, there are two kinds of liars. The ordinary kind often display signs of nervousness, such as sweaty palms and dry mouth (or an itchy nose) when they are lying. Then there are the "super liars" who display no such telltale signs. This type can outsmart law enforcement, and even pass polygraph tests. The super liar actually enjoys lying because he or she is, in some sense, "living a lie." Thus, they display no symptoms of physical or emotional stress, and can deliver a line calmly and with considerable finesse. 

Was Mata Hari a super liar? The colorful life (and death) of this exotic dancer and probable "double agent" during World War I, is fascinating. She was convicted of being a German spy and executed by a French firing squad.

About the Author

E. E. Smith is a playwright and book author. Her new series of murder mysteries debuted in 2013. The first is titled Death by Misadventure. 

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