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Dubai: If someone is a really good liar, the truth is you’ll never know it.

That’s because lying is a natural process that people have honed since the beginning of time.

“Let’s say somebody asks a stupid question and then asks you what you think of it and you decide not to express your true feelings,” Dr Vasudevi Reddy, a professor of developmental and cultural psychology at the University of Portsmouth, posed as an example. “Society tells you in this situation it’s acceptable to lie.”

Infograph: Do polygraphs detect lies?

While society encourages these “white lies”, Dr Reddy believes that other kinds of lies emerge as a result, such as not showing emotion in some kind of professional situation.

“Many people don’t like to show that they’re angry,” she told Gulf News. “You show that you are calm to carry on being a professional.”

But this doesn’t mean that lying necessarily holds a negative connotation.

In fact, a 2008 study led by Dr Richard Gramzow of University of Southampton found that college students who exaggerated their GPA (Grade Point Average) in interviews later showed improvement in their grades.

Talking about how much a teenager lies isn’t quite as newsworthy as it seems. So when does it all start?

“There is some debate about it but we know for sure that verbal lies begin at around two-and-a-half years of age,” Dr Reddy said. “That’s because if we are looking at language-based lies, then you can only look at children who can speak.”

However this relates to lies that result from talking. But being able to speak doesn’t turn you into an instant liar.

According to Dr Reddy, a baby can show signs of deception when he or she is just a year old. “Considering that lying can happen at such a young age, we learn that it’s not an unnatural thing to do,” Dr Reddy said. “One-year-olds will hide or wait until their guardian [has] left the room to try and do something.”

However, in very young children it’s used more as tricks to see how much they can get away with. And this behaviour isn’t just unique to humans.

“Animals [also] do deception,” Dr Reddy continued. “People have done studies where they look at baboons who do deliberate attempts to distract attention, so they can get away with doing what they want.”

But is there a reason people resort to lying?

“It’s almost always about getting what they want,” world-renowned hostage negotiator and author Dr Ben Lopez told Gulf News. “It’s about reducing possible pain or anxiety that’s coming from them.”

Dr Lopez, who took his schooling as a psychologist to unlikely levels, authored the memoir The Negotiator: My life at the heart of the hostage trade, detailing criminal operations that he’d been a part of during his career. In total, Dr Lopez helped manage the safe return of over 25 kidnap-for-ransom cases and ship piracy cases in his career. In other words, he is one of the world’s foremost guides on lying and deception.

“Everybody lies at some point,” Dr Lopez said. “The truth is kind of a variable thing — it’s never black and white.”

In general, Dr Lopez said it is often harder to control non-verbal lying.

“Lying takes a psychological toll,” he said. “When I’m dealing with hostage takers, it’s normally by phone and I always assume they are lying. Everything has to be verifiable or things will turn to trouble quick.”

Yet even for someone who dealt with liars for a day job, Dr Lopez understands that there is no clear-cut way to identify if someone is lying.

“There’s no single way that’s 100 per cent sure,” he said. “Lie detection is more of an art than a science, but at the end of the day, what you are looking for is changes.”

For example, if somebody normally bites their nails and you think they are lying — ask them a question and see if they stop. “It’s changes in behaviour,” he continued. “That could be the indicator.”

Dr Reddy holds a similar view that lying is just a way of achieving an end. But while it may be too late for criminals, there may be some mistakes that parents unwittingly make that could encourage deception in the case of children.

“When we tell kids that we’ll give them one last time, but both you and the child know they will ask again,” she said. “Sometimes we actually create situations where we are inviting them or setting them up to make false promises.”

But since experts agree that lying comes naturally, does that still make it something to dislike? “We all lie,” Dr Reddy said. “And while in some ways deception is natural to achieve some goals, lying still reduces the chance of having a good relationship. This limits how much you can truly study it.”

Joseph Gedeon is an intern with Gulf News.

Spotting a lie isn’t as quick and easy as it looks

Spotting a lie isn’t as quick and easy as it looks on television.With time and training, it is possible to get a good sense of when someone is deceiving you, experts say.

“It’s really about how to observe very carefully,” said Pamela Meyer, author of the book Liespotting and chief executive officer of the private firm Calibrate, which trains people and companies about how to spot deception. “It’s really not a parlour trick.”

It’s a skill that can be developed with practice, said David Matsumoto, a San Francisco State University professor of psychology. He’s also a consultant to law enforcement and intelligence agencies and chief executive officer of Humintell, a company that trains police agencies, lawyers and businesses in how to read emotions.

Detecting deception

There is no magic tell or giveaway, Meyer and Matsumoto said. There are hints — or “leakage,” as Meyer calls it — but they aren’t the same for everyone. What experts look for is change from truth-telling to deception, but not one specific change. So they need a baseline, a sense of what people look and talk like when their guard is down and they are telling the truth. While it is possible to get a baseline with 20 seconds to 30 seconds of observation, it works better with more time. Different people have different baselines. Some people can act nervous — especially when being questioned by police — even if they are telling the truth. Once a normal is established, the idea is to ask open-ended questions and look for cues, changes in verbal and non-verbal behaviour, Meyer said.

Verbal changes

Look for changes in language and grammar, Matsumoto said. Meyer points to distancing language, such as Bill Clinton’s “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” Liars may split hairs, decline to answer, change the subject or tone, protest a question, even put up their hands while protesting, Meyer said. Also, look for extraneous information. That often is a clue of deception, but not always, Matsumoto said. Police will ask for a disjointed or backward timeline of someone they are interrogating, he said. Constructed fake memories are done in chronological order so they are harder to call up backward.

Non-verbal changes

There’s a myth that fidgeting is a sign of lying, Meyer said. Some people naturally fidget or naturally freeze. The key is change, not a specific action, she said. That said, look at the face, Matsumoto recommended: “If something happens in the face, it can happen anywhere” on the face. “Research has shown that the bulk of messages in any action is communicated non-verbally,” Matsumoto said. Meyer tells people to look at the smile. A real smile is seen in the eyes, a fake smile is only in the mouth. Also watch for a smile of contempt with one lip corner curled, as if the liar thinks he or she is getting away with something, Meyer said.


The US National Academy of Sciences gave a decidedly mixed review to the usefulness of polygraphs, especially as a means of screening out potential security threats in advance. A 2003 report said that if the person being examined isn’t trained in countermeasures, that can fool a lie-detector machine, “specific-incident polygraph tests can discriminate lying from truth telling at rates well above chance, though well below perfection.” But the same report said “almost a century of research in scientific psychology and physiology provides little basis for the expectation that a polygraph test could have extremely high accuracy.”

Matsumoto said much research points to the quality of the polygraph examiner, not the machine itself, as the most important factor. Well-trained people can divine truth without the machine, Matsumoto said — just ask his children.


“My family gave up a long time ago trying to lie to me,” he said.