How to Tell If Someone Is Lying

“Your message must have gone to my spam folder.” “No, those pants are totally cute on you.”  “The check’s in the mail.”  White lies may be a necessary social lubricant, but big whoppers cost us emotional energy and trust.  How to tell if you’re being taken for a ride? This week, by request from listener Nasser from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen reveals seven ways to tell if someone is lying.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
4-minute read
Episode #77

According to eminent psychologist and emotion researcher Dr. Paul Ekman, lying comes in two flavors. First are “low stakes lies,” which almost all of us engage in; these are lies like, “Oh no, I never got your message,” or “So sorry I’ll be out today—it must have been something I ate.”

By contrast, “high stakes lies”—”I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” or “I’m not in love with David Patraeus"—are, thankfully, less common.  

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Either way, can you handle the truthiness?  Research says probably not: we’re terrible at detecting lies.  Even technology doesn’t improve our chances—a 2009 study in the Journal of Forensic Sciences examined a technique called voice stress analysis and found that it worked about as well as ... you guessed it: guessing.

And to make things worse, a 2014 study found that emotionally intelligent individuals (read: anyone who listens to psychology podcasts) are more easily duped by liars.  

That’s not to say we can’t improve our chances. While there is no single, silver bullet method to recognize deception, there are two different ways that lies leak from a liar like sweat on a brow. 

The first set of cues are physiological: gestures, facial expressions, or other ways liars wear their lie on their sleeve. In the following three examples, the key is to watch rather than listen.

Sign #1: Duping delight.  There’s a common myth that something called microexpressions are proof of lying. Microexpressions are fleeting, split-second facial expressions that reveal a deliberately covered emotion. However, suppressing an emotion doesn’t necessarily mean a lie—you might cover anxiety to play it cool in an awkward situation, suppress shock to keep your poker face, or tamp down anger at your boss, all without an outright fib.

That said, with an actual lie, you may see a microexpression called duping delight, which is a smile or excited fidgeting that results from anticipation of a successful lie. Feeling like he or she got away with it gives the liar a thrill of pleasure, so next time you think you’re hearing a tall tale, be on the lookout for a telltale half-suppressed smile at the end.

Sign #2: Another sign is gaze aversion, or the breaking off of eye contact. Most liars know that lying is wrong, so reducing eye contact reduces the guilt of lying to your face. In addition, lying generally takes a lot of cognitive and emotional energy, so simultaneously holding eye contact can overload a liar and cause him or her to look away.

Sign #3: The third cue to watch for is non-congruent gestures. The words are lies, but the body tells the truth.  For example: couple strongly confident words “I swear I put the check in the mail on Tuesday” with a shrug of the shoulders, and you know you’ll have to wait for your money.  In another example, pair an affirmative statement—”Of course I’ll cooperate with the investigation”—with a subtle “no” shake of the head, and you have reason to suspect a whopper.


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.