Babies, CEOs, Gorillas, and Other Liars

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Everybody lies at one time or another, whether it’s a tiny white lie or a gigunda fabrication. In fact, Pamela Meyer, author of Liespotting and presenter of a TED talk on how to spot a liar, reports that on any given day we're lied to from ten to 200 times. Gulp!

Occasional fibbing keeps things civil, but it’s disconcerting to realize how ubiquitous lying is. Meyer points out that babies can fake a cry, one-year-olds learn concealment, two-year-olds bluff, five-year-olds lie outright, and nine-year-olds are masters of cover up. And the work world is “cluttered with spam, fake digital friends, partisan media, ingenious identity thieves, world-class Ponzi schemers, a deception epidemic.”

By the way, lying isn’t limited to humans. Koko, the gorilla who learned to communicate using sign language, had a pet kitten. When asked who ripped a sink out of the well, Koko pointed to the kitten and signed, “Cat did it!”

So, how can we know we’re being lied to? According to Meyer, liars may use formal rather than informal language, such as cannot rather than can’t. They may use qualifying language, such as “in all candor.” They may repeat a question in its entirety before responding and add too much detail and in irrelevant places. They tell their stories in strict chronological sequence.

Tom Scheve, writing for How Stuff Works, explains that lying may entail microexpressions that appear on people's faces against their will and without their awareness. For example, a millisecond-long smile may appear in the midst of a bout of anger.

Additional signs of lying, according to Scheve, may include a mismatch between words and body language, such as nodding yes during a denial or nodding no during a positive statement. Someone who's lying might turn away from the questioner, cross his or her arms, point feet toward the door, or move farther away. People who are lying may fidget, especially during a pause in the conversation.

Remember, though: One or another of these signs by itself isn’t proof that someone is lying. It’s when you detect clusters of them that it’s time to look, listen, probe, and ask questions.

Apparently, clusters of them appeared in a Stanford study on how to tell if a CEO or CFO is lying about the numbers. According to Ed Zwirn, writing in CFO World, deceptive CEOs and CFOs were identified as those who needed to file subsequent restatements. Among other finds, both:

… were found to use “more references to general knowledge” including phrases like “you know” and “everybody knows,” fewer “non-extreme positive emotion words (love, nice, accept), and fewer references to shareholder value” than their presumably more honest colleagues.

For the bible on lying, check out Telling Lies by Paul Ekman, a pioneer in the study of liars and lying and a researcher in the study of facial microexpressions that accompany various emotions. He now offers training, drawn from decades of research, to help others read microexpressions.

As to your own lying, Mark Twain is reported to have said, “Never tell a lie … except to keep in practice.”

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Naomi Karten

Naomi Karten is a writer and speaker who draws from her background in both psychology and IT. Naomi's recent books are Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals and Changing How You Manage and Communicate Change. Readers have described her newsletter, Perceptions and Realities, as lively, informative, and a breath of fresh air. Naomi is a regular columnist for