Suspicious woman scrutinizing a man

The Pinocchio effect: How to spot a liar

Written by Peter Harris
Posted on July 19, 2015

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

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