9 Truths You Should Know About Expert Liars
Can't spot a lie? What about a liar?
Posted February 6, 2020 | Reviewed by Chloe Williams
We are not good at being able to spot a lie. In fact, research has consistently found our accuracy rate for detecting deception to be about 54 percent—just a smidge above a coin toss.
If we can't spot lies, why not try spotting liars?
This is what the new science of lying is suggesting. An article published in December 2019 entitled "Lie Prevalence, Lie Characteristics and Strategies of Self-Reported Good Liars" is part of the latest scientific trend where researchers are turning their attention to studying liars, particular expert liars, to increase our understanding of how to detect deception.
The article reveals fascinating facts about the characteristics and strategies of expert liars—truths that help us identify the prolific liar skulking around our dating life, our workspace, or our social circles.
Let's begin unpacking the new science of lying with these nine truths that everyone should know about expert liars:
#1 The Majority of Lies Are Told by a Minority of Liars
This 2019 study, along with previous research, reveals that most people are honest most of the time and that the vast majority of lies that are told are told only by a handful of liars. In fact, a 2010 study of 1,000 participants found that 50 percent of all the lies reported in a 24-hour period were told by 5 percent of the respondents, the prolific liars.
#2 Prolific Liars Think They Are Good Liars
According to the 2019 study, prolific liars consider themselves to be good liars. Brianna Verigin and co-authors of the study explain that good liars seem to be responsible for a disproportionate amount of lies in daily life. The findings demonstrate that "higher self-reported ratings of individuals’ deception ability were positively correlated with self-reports of telling a greater number of lies per day."
Deception, for the prolific liar, is not an unconscious habit of stretching the truth, it involves skill and strategy to make a lie hard to spot, as we shall discuss more in Truths #5,#6, and #7.
#3 They Tend to Tell Inconsequential Lies
Another finding from the study shows that these expert liars tend to tell more inconsequential lies than lies of serious consequence. The findings from the self-reports reveal that an increased ability to deceive was positively correlated with higher endorsement of telling white lies and exaggerations within the last 24 hours.
The authors theorize that "people who believe they can get away with such minor falsehoods may be more inclined to include them frequently in daily interactions."
#4 They Prefer Lying Face-to-Face
In the 2019 study, the researchers found that higher self-reported deception ability was correlated with preferring to tell lies face-to-face, but not correlated with preference in telling lies via text message, phone call, email, or social media.
This study fits in with previous findings from a 2017 study that also examined characteristics of self-reported good versus poor liars, showing that "self-perceived good liars most commonly lied via face-to-face interactions versus through text chat.
The research here suggests that this could be a strategic decision of the prolific liar in that verbal strategies of deception work best face-to-face. The authors of the 2017 study explain that since research indicates that people may expect more deception via online environments, lying face-to-face might be preferable to avoid suspicion.
#5 The First Strategy of the Expert Liar: Embedding Lies in Truth
Good liars are good talkers, the authors of the 2019 study explain. Notably, a good liar versus a poor liar is more skilled in how they embed a lie in the truth. The study found that good liars were more likely than poor liars to be able to match "the amount and type of details in their lies to the truthful parts of their story."
How and where the truthful information is incorporated is a critical strategy for the prolific liar.
This supports the findings from a 2012 study that found that the majority of discrete details reported by liars to bolster their deception were "experienced, occurred relatively frequently, occurred relatively recently, and were typical or routine."
#6 The Second Strategy: Keep It Simple
Another important strategy addressed in the 2019 study that prolific liars employ is that when lying "they keep their statements clear and simple." An expert liar does not try to add too much detail but knows the appropriate amount to relate, at the appropriate time.
The study found that, in contrast, the self-reported poor liars were more likely than good liars to rely on being intentionally vague or avoiding mentioning certain details.
#7 The Third Strategy: It Must Be Plausible
The final strategy stated in the 2019 study is that "good liars used plausibility as a strategy for succeeding with their lies."
By definition, a plausible lie is easier to believe. However, expert liars are good at constructing a plausible account. One way they do this, as described in the 2019 study, is by providing information that the receiver of the lie cannot check—unverifiable details.
#8 Men or Women: Who Is the Better Liar?
This study found that "men are twice as likely as women to consider themselves to be good at lying and at getting away with it." Out of the self-reported poor liars, 70 percent were female compared to 30 percent male. Additionally, from the participants who identified themselves to be good liars, about 62 percent were male whereas around 37 percent were female.
#9 The Most Common Recipients of the Prolific Liars' Lies
The 2019 study found that skilled liars tend to deceive mostly their friends, colleagues, and romantic partners as opposed to family, employers, or authority figures.
The authors explain that this suggests that good liars are not as restricted in who they lie to as poor liars, who past research has shown tend to tell more lies to casual acquaintances and strangers than to friends and family.
Limitations to Consider in the New Science of Lying
While there are many recent studies on deception helping us to learn more about the characteristics of the prolific liar, there are still limitations and areas for further study necessary for enriching the New Science of Lying.
One area worth briefly mentioning concerns the limitations of self-reporting studies.
Can We Trust an Expert Liar During Self-Reporting?
A natural question that arises in any study on liars, where the main method of data collection involves self-report, is "can we believe them?" A 2017 study that surveyed 3,000 participants raised the important question: "How do you know the subjects are not lying (about the extent to which they lie)?”
The authors explained that ways of testing self-reported data involve including other forms of data collection (i.e. behavioral measures, projective data) to confirm the validity of the self-reports. They also mention that when subjects are assured anonymity, social desirability bias is limited and that often the study itself provides no sources of motivation to lie about one's own behavior.
Having said that, additional confirmation measures included in future research would be beneficial to fully understand the validity of self-reported data as it applies to studies investigating deception.
But for now, at least, the burgeoning research deciphering the secrets of expert liars is promising, not just for the field of deception detection, but our everyday encounters with lurking liars.
If you can take away one thing from what the new science of lying is teaching us, it is this:
Stop trying to spot a lie and learn to spot a liar!