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

Once your eyes suspect a liar, next let your ears have a turn. Here are four cues to listen for:

Sign #4: A story in strict chronological order. When a complex lie is to be told, whether to a CIA agent, the parent of a teenager, or Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, liars often rehearse their story, which usually is spun from—logically—start to finish. A fun trick?  If you think you’re hearing a tall tale, ask to hear the story backwards: “So when you just happened to see the car in the ditch—what happened before that again?” and watch the liar squirm.

Sign #5: Way too much linguistic convolution or overcompensation. Does your suspected liar use a hundred words when ten would do?  Or use formal language with many clauses?  For example, compare these two statements: “In light of the given situation, it can categorically be stated that I have never, and would never, remove your lunch from the shared office refrigerator.”  Contrast that with “I didn’t eat your lunch.”  

Sign #6: Distancing. A truth-teller names names, while a liar uses impersonal phrases or pronouns; for example, “that woman” rather than “Miss Lewinsky.” In addition, liars avoid saying “I.” For example, instead of “I didn’t skim off the register,” you’ll hear, “No one here would ever skim off the register.” 

Sign #7: The used-car salesman vibe. Liars work really hard to come across as truthful. They smile at all the right moments and say all the right things. But the result often appears contrived and fake, which it is. If you feel like you’re being sold a bag of goods, you probably are. In short, a bright toothy smile probably means a shark.

For more on lies and the liars who tell them, the classic book on spotting lies is Paul Ekman’s book Telling Lies: Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Politics, and Marriage.


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Harnsberger, J.D., Hollien, H., Martin, C.A., Hollien, K.A.  (2009) Stress and Deception in Speech: Evaluating Layered Voice Analysis.  Journal of Forensic Sciences, 54, 642-650.

Baker, A., ten Brinke, L. & Porter, S. (2013).  Will get fooled again: Emotionally intelligent people are easily duped by high-stakes deceivers. Legal & Criminological Psychology, 18, 300-313.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.



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.