A new study out of Harvard offers tips on spotting a liar. They're not what you see in the movies.
It would be nice if every job candidate, negotiating partner, and potential supplier told the truth. But here in the real world, being in business means separating spin from reality.
Police shows and folk wisdom offer suggestions, but these commonly held "tells" aren't useful for spotting deception. For starters, liars aren't always so fidgety. But just because Hollywood gets it wrong doesn't mean that you should.
A new study from the Harvard Business School and University of Madison, Wisconsin, offers some insight on the practice. Researchers asked study participants to play a commonly-used game in economics research in which one person was given a sum of money and asked to decide how much to share with another player. The person on the receiving end could either accept or reject the money if they felt it was unfair, in which case both players got nothing.
For this study, the experimenters tweaked the game to create an opportunity wherein players could lie. The players receiving offers weren't told what their partner had, but were allowed to chat with that player before starting the game. During this time, the researchers determined, the moneyed player would have an opportunity to fib.
In the end, 30 percent of the players either flat-out lied about how much money they had or tried to avoid having the conversation. So could the researchers tell they were lying? Working Knowledge points out three examples:
They talked a lot. "Bald-faced liars tended to use many more words during the ultimatum game than did truth tellers, presumably in an attempt to win over suspicious receivers," Working Knowledge noted. "Just like Pinocchio's nose, the number of words grew along with the lie," Van Sol said. Liars also used more complex sentences than truth-tellers.
They swore more. Deceptive players swore more frequently than truthful players, the researchers found, particularly when their opposite number voiced doubts about their honesty. "We think this may be due to the fact that it takes a lot of cognitive energy to lie," said one researcher. "Using so much of your brain to lie may make it hard to monitor yourself in other areas."
They avoided "I" statements. No one wants to admit they're behaving unethically, so they'll often shy away from "I" statements and use third-person pronouns like "he" and "she" instead. "This is a way of distancing themselves from and avoiding ownership of the lie," one researcher noted.
As it turns out, lying by ommission is not a good strategy. Bald-faced lies were far more convincing, though the researchers cautioned there are no definitive red flags for dealing with liars.
"It would be a mistake to take the findings as gospel and apply them too strictly," said research collaborator Deepak Malhotra. "Rather, the factors we find to be associated with lies and deception are perhaps most useful as warning signs that should simply prompt greater vigilance and further investigation ..."
Are you good at spotting liars, and if so, what tricks do you use?
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