Suspicious woman scrutinizing a man

The Pinocchio effect: How to spot a liar

Peter Harris|

Working relationships should be built on trust, but sometimes people will tell lies in order to get what they want. When you’re taking on a new job – especially if you’re employed and leaving your current position for a new and ostensibly better one – you want to know that everything you’ve been told about the company and your role are true. The same goes for employers hiring new staff – they need to be assured that candidates are up front about their abilities and their shortcomings.

The working hours take up so much of our time and play such an important part of lives and identities that situations which start off with deception and disappointment usually end in disaster.

Employers trying to recruit top talent may highlight the benefits of the job while glossing over the extreme micro-managing director who’s going to make your life a living hell or failing to mention the incredibly high turnover rate caused by a toxic workplace culture. And some candidates in an attempt to beat out the competition of a job will outright lie about their credentials or accomplishments.

So how can you know for sure that you’re getting the straight goods?

Well, there’s the Pinocchio effect. Researchers have found that when you lie, your nose actually heats up. Using thermographic cameras, psychiatrists at the University of Granada in Spain were able to detect increased temperatures in the noses and the regions around the eyes of people who were telling lies. However, this may not be very practical. You generally won’t have a thermographic camera handy or be able to ask someone if you can place your hand over their nose before asking them a question in order to detect the veracity of their answer.

However there are common body language cues that often indicate that a person is not telling the truth. Researchers at Harvard University have also found that there are also linguistic clues in the way people answer questions that can be warning signs of dishonesty.

Body language giveaways

  • Watch for the facial touching. People who are uncomfortable being dishonest tend to cover their mouth or touch their nose when they tell a lie. This could be an attempt to hide micro facial expressions or perhaps due to the sudden heat rush discovered by the Spanish study.
  • Watch what they do with their eyes. While breaking eye contact in itself is not a clear indicator of lying – people often look away in order to concentrate or remember details – if there is a distinct change in a person’s eye-movements, rapid blinking, looking up or down for long periods while speaking it can indicate dishonesty. Also if they suddenly become hyper-focussed on staring you in the eye, it could be an attempt to counter-act the looking away factor and convince you of the lie.
  • People who are lying often fidget more than those who are giving straight answers. Fidgeting is usually caused by discomfort or nervousness – both of which are symptoms of someone worried that they’ll be caught out for being dishonest. (Keep this in mind in job interviews. If you’re nervous, remember to keep your fidgeting in check. Worse than simply implying a lack of confidence – it could cause your interviewer to distrust your answers.)

Linguistic indicators of dishonesty

The Harvard study, Evidence for the Pinocchio Effect, tested people involved in business negotiations where trust was required and money was on the line. You can access the full details of the experiment here, but these were interesting findings:

  • People who are lying tend to use a lot more words than people who are telling the truth, probably because they feel the need to convince the listener of what they’re saying, rather than just tell them something. Researchers also called this the Pinocchio Effect – as similar to Pinocchio’s nose – the length of the sentence grew along with the lie.
  • People who told lies of omission – leaving out relevant information rather than outright lying – actually went the other way, using even shorter sentences and fewer words than people telling the truth.
  • People who told outright lies were believed more often than people who attempted to hide the truth through not talking about it. (So if you really need to deceive, you’re more likely to get away with making something up than with attempting to avoid the subject.)
  • Liars swear more often than people who are telling the truth. (Note – in the job interview scenario – don’t swear either way, whether or not you’re lying.)
  • Liars used far more third-person pronouns (“him, her, it, one, they, their” rather than “I”) than people who were telling the truth – or lying by omission. Similarly they also used much more complex sentence structures. Researchers interpret this as an attempt to separate themselves from the dishonesty at the heart of what they’re saying.

Finally, researchers compared cases where subjects conducted this same negotiation experiment by email exchange versus those who interacted in person. It turned out that liars are found out much more often in print than face-to-face. In an email exchange, the reader has the chance to go over the information more than once and at their own pace – and there are fewer distractions than when listening to a live person speak.

Peter Harris

Peter Harris on Twitter

Create your own user feedback

Category: Life At Work
  • Monika

    well what if you have allergies and you play with your nose, I fidget due to pain in my knees and I don’t like to look in someone’s eyes as I have travelled a lot and used to always look in someone’s eyes and found out what this means when you are a woman in a mans world in a country other than Canada, so I look up a lot or to the side. So I don’t really like the advise in this article.

  • maryam


  • maryam


  • D.

    The number 1 liars are so-called “employment-councellors and advisers”. Not only do they not have a clue about real situation on the job-market and particulars of the job, they give “advice” about, but they are also parasites as well: they produce nothing of value but get paid very high salaries for doing practically nothing. They are the ones, job-seekers must avoid.The most common “trick” of these “professionals” to watch: when one helps you with writing your resume and you go to another one, the next one tells you, that your resume is no good and must be re-written.

  • Gale Franey

    Sounds like a load of nonsense to me. Each person reacts differently, according to their upbringing, culture, shyness, nervousness, and numerous other factors. This article will do little to assist people in their search for employment or to assist employers to screen candidates for job openings.

  • Lauri

    This has far too many blanket statements that might lead an interviewer to assume someone is lying, when in fact they are just nervous. People with anxiety or low self-esteem do the same things – look away a lot, fidget a lot. People from Asian or Native cultures will not make eye-contact if they can avoid it – it’s considered rude to them. Open your tiny minds and let some air in!!

    • Sheldon Tobe

      Lauri, I totally agree with you.

    • mysteryjesus

      Yeah this study is dubious at best. I read recently another study that said people who swear are more honest than those who don’t. Now who can you believe here? A lot of what this study considers lying totally overlaps with nervousness or the fact that the person speaking needs to look away to recollect things. I can’t sit there and judge someone’s emotions or facial expressions while I try to remember things because their face is distracting me from what I need to remember. I do a lot of these things, and I can tell you this, I sure as hell am not a liar. I hate liars. The real liars are people in management at any company. I’ve been lied to by more managers and supervisors than anyone, yet these studies are designed to assist the people who do the majority of the lying. Here’s a saying that I thought up that has a lot of truth to it: A recent study shows that 92% of all studies are complete bullshit.

  • Efrem

    If you want to spot a liar, change the subject. The liar will be happy to pass to a new subject, whereas the person who is telling the truth will prefer to return to the previous topic, kind of: Why did you jump to politics, if we were talking about my career?

    • mysteryjesus

      Sorry but this is a poor way of spotting a liar. They might be more of an agreeable type if anything.

      • Efrem

        Have you ever tried this way, to judge whether it’s poor or rich?

        • mysteryjesus

          I didn’t mean to be critical of your observation. I just wonder if it’s actually a good way to spot a liar. Also what about different cultures? Body language may be different. Personally, I think you need a lot more evidence to spot a liar based on whether they jump to new topics unless they are specifically trying to dodge a subject they are lying about. Maybe this is what you mean? I guess it depends on whether this particular liar is the one doing all the talking. Then yes they will jump to a different subject.

          • Efrem

            I think it’s a possible way, and it’s Westerners that I have in mind, maybe in other cultures people’s behaviour could be different. Imagine you are telling (the truth) about your work at ABC company, you are proud of your work, but, suddenly, I jump to sports. IMHO, your natural reaction would be to return to the main topic as soon as possible.

          • WRLO56 .

            You’re not talking about a friendly discussion in the pub, you’re interviewing someone who needs a job and wants to impress you.

        • WRLO56 .

          Do you have any actual evidence that this works? Or is just some “theory” that you came up with on your own?

          • Efrem

            I base it on my personal experience, are you happy with this answer? Anyway, it’s not a theory, just an opinion; fortunately, we are not in North Korea, and expressing opinions is not a crime.

          • WRLO56 .

            I’m sure that people who rely on Tarot cards, Ouija boards, astrology, or divination also believe their opinions are borne out by “personal experience”. And if you want to base your hiring decisions on pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo, I suppose you have every right to do so. But speaking for myself, if an interviewer suddenly changed topics in the middle of a discussion, I’d probably assume either (a) she’s a little bit quirky and I’d better humour her, or (b) he’s testing me to see how well I can handle a curveball. In either case, I’d probably just play along with the interviewer.

          • Efrem

            Exactly, she will see how you handle the ball: whether you’ll try to gently return to the initial field, or you’ll stay too long in the new one. Then the recruiter would think: Why is he so eager to impress me with his knowledge in some PCBS (politically correct bullshit, you’ll find a lot of it in the media) rather than with his professional achievements?

  • Chris

    Don’t forget, the interviewee is also watching the interviewer, and is spotting lies being told after asking important questions about company hours, flexibility, culture, etc. I know when I spot a lying interviewer, I would tend to keep my next answers to their questions shorter and shorter. Interviewers are there to sell the job, and are not above lying, too, to keep their own jobs.
    I also find that when there’s too much emphasis on ‘a good fit’, it means they are not looking for diversity, they are looking for new hires who can toe the line, and can withstand working in a poor, closed working environment with rigid, unwritten ‘rules’ that run contrary to their canned Mission Statement and Values statement.
    Everything works both ways.

    • mysteryjesus

      Well said. This is exactly my own experience with companies too. Mission Statements and Value Statements are never adhered to at any place I have ever worked. It amazes me that they even bother to include them on their websites. Oh and the top employer this or that awards are just corporate propaganda. The only thing that makes one company better than another are the benefits. It’s certainly not as rosy as they paint the picture to be.

  • Lauri

    All the behaviours the article attributes to liars also apply perfectly to my rigidly honest, desperately shy husband! That’s how I know it’s BS.

    • mysteryjesus

      This article is extrovert propaganda. They couldn’t spot a liar if they tried. All they need to do is look in a mirror to spot a liar.

  • WRLO56 .

    Articles like this are worse than useless – they are dangerous. Even trained police interrogators with years of experience make mistakes, and polygraphs are not admissible as evidence in court for a very good reason – they’re not reliable enough. But this author suggests you can become an expert simply by reading a single article on the subject.

    • BuckDSystem

      Yeah, it sounds like you are describing almost every HR manager out there.

  • Efrem