Sound Too Good to Be True? Recognizing the Sound of a Lie

Don't believe everything you hear: Here's how to detect dishonesty.

Posted Apr 19, 2018

eldar nurkovic/Shutterstock
Source: eldar nurkovic/Shutterstock

Self-Proclaimed Lie Detectors Often Are Not

When I pick juries, I often ask the panel whether any of them consider themselves to be excellent lie detectors. Inevitably, several hands shoot up. When I ask them how they developed their expertise, they usually explain that they “have kids” or “watch lie-detecting shows on TV.” Neither explanation is convincing; the second one is downright distressing, because Hollywood crime shows often create false expectations about our lie-detecting ability.

Yet one thing that all prospective jurors, and the rest of us, have in common is the ability to detect deception based on hearing, as well as watching — if they know what to listen for.

Content Without Context

Have you ever tried to determine whether someone was lying to you by looking down or closing your eyes, and just listening to the words? Being forced to focus on only the sound (without the body language) might help some people determine the accuracy of the spoken word, because research indicates that some credibility cues are easier heard than seen.

When Hearing Is Believing

In “Listening, Not Watching” (2011), Reinhard et al. linked situational familiarity with an enhanced ability to detect lies by focusing more on verbal cues than nonverbal cues.[i]  

They describe the situational familiarity hypothesis as involving someone having a familiarity with the facts surrounding a situation in which they are assessing credibility. It holds that people in familiar situations tend to gauge credibility based on verbal content. In unfamiliar situations, people might avoid unknown (unfamiliar) content and focus more on nonverbal behavior to gauge credibility. Their study sought to investigate the impact of situational familiarity on the accuracy of people's judgments of deception.  

The researchers tested the influence of situational familiarity through four experiments and found that participants with high situational familiarity had a higher accuracy rate in detecting both deceptive and truthful messages, as compared with participants with low situational familiarity. They also found that accuracy in the high-situational familiarity condition involved using more verbal content cues and fewer nonverbal ones.

Sometimes, detecting dishonesty depends on the verbal habits of the speaker.

Pitch Perfect

What does deception sound like? It depends on who's talking. A study by Villar et al. (2013) using audiotaped interviews found that people who expect the vocal pitch to increase while lying adjust their pitch accordingly when deceiving.[ii] They also found that these liars produced higher-pitched deceptive statements compared to when they told the truth. Villar et al. noted that these results indicate that pitch is less susceptible to behavioral control, and thus may be a better deception tool than physical behaviors, such as the gaze.

Does Profanity Indicate Honesty?

In “Frankly, we do give a damn: The relationship between profanity and honesty,” Feldman et al. (2016) demonstrated a positive relationship between profanity and honesty.[iii] Leading off with the famous Rhett Butler quote — “Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn” (Gone with the Wind, 1939) — which resulted in a $5,000 fine for violating the Motion Picture Production Code, the study explored conflicting public views of profanity.

Regarding gender norms, however, research reveals that when judging suspect credibility in an interview setting, swearing males were viewed as having the highest credibility, and profane females the lowest.[iv] Law enforcement, however, is viewed differently when they swear. Research investigating police officer credibility revealed that officers who use profanity during routine traffic stops are perceived as less friendly and less fair.[v]

True Believers and False Positives 

There will always be people who believe everything they hear, and others who maintain a default position of distrust and verify — alienating friends and family alike with their cynicism. Either end of the trust spectrum is an uncomfortable place to live. Thankfully, becoming familiar with the relevant research may improve our lie-detecting accuracy. 

The trick is to keep both your eyes and ears open. Sure, you can see visual cues indicating potential deception. But ensure that such observations do not cause you to jump to conclusions, because in other cases, hearing is believing.


[i]Marc-Andre Reinhard, Siegfried L. Sporer, Martin Scharmach, and Tamara Marksteiner, ”Listening, Not Watching: Situational Familiarity adn the Ability to Detect Deception,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology101, no. 3 (2011): 467-484.

[ii]Gina Villar, Joanne Arciuli, and Helen Paterson, ”Vocal Pitch Production during Lying: Beliefs About Deception Matter,” Psychiatry, Psychology and Law20, no. 1 (2013): 123-132.

[iii]Gilad Feldman, Huiwen Lian, Michael Kosinski, and David Stilwell, ”Frankly we do give a damn: The relationship between profanity and honesty,” Accepted for publication at Social Psychological and Personality Science(2016): 1-32.

[iv]Kellie Ann Green and Julia Friedman, ”Effects of Gender and Profanity during Interrogation on Perceived Credibility,” (poster presentation, Western Psychology Association 2006 Convention, Riviera Resort, Palm Springs, California, April 30, 2006).

[v]John Baseheart and Terry Cox. "Effects of Police Use of Profanity on a Receiver's Perceptions of Credibility," Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology9, no. 2 (1993): 9-19.