The uncomfortable truth about liars

girllyingThe UK Guardian newspaper runs a regular column entitled “Improbable research”, and the most recent (12 June) was about deception research. Mark Abrahams highlights research published last year (he says ‘recently published’, I say ‘is Jan 2006 still recent??’) in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, from a group of researchers calling themselves the Global Deception Research Team:

The team is big. It has 91 members, spread all around the world. Their stated goal: “studying stereotypes about liars”. They ask someone, “How can you tell when people are lying?”, then follow this up with 10 simple questions about liars.

Abrahams lists the questions, and gives details of the countries in which these questions were asked. The results?

Here is their pithy distillation: “[There are] common stereotypes about the liar, and these should not be ignored. Liars shift their posture, they touch and scratch themselves, liars are nervous, and their speech is flawed. These beliefs are common across the globe. Yet in prevalence, these stereotypes are dwarfed by the most common belief about liars: ‘they can’t look you in the eye’.”

That is their great discovery. And it accords with previous discoveries by other researchers.

It’s not really a very good article, which is a shame, because the original research is pretty interesting. What Abrahams doesn’t explain is that most research on deception indicates that gaze aversion and fidgeting are not reliable signs of lying, though there is some evidence that linguistic cues can be useful in discriminating lies from deceit. The authors of the ‘world of lies’ study explore some possible explanations for the near-universal belief that liars can’t look you in the eye, and I think their hypothesis is an intriguing one:

If stereotypes about lying do not reflect observations of deceptive behavior, how do they arise? Let us propose an answer to this question. Stereotypes about lying are designed to discourage lies. They are not intended to be descriptive; rather, they embody a worldwide norm. Children should be ashamed when they lie to their parents, and liars should feel bad. Lying should not pay, and liars should be caught. Stereotypes of the liar capture and promote these prescriptions. As vehicles for social control, these stereotypes are transmitted from one generation to the next.Worldwide, socialization agents face a common challenge. They cannot always be present and must control misbehavior that occurs in their absence. If the ultimate goal of socialization is to inculcate a wide set of norms, children must first learn to report their misdeeds. Thus, caregivers have an incentive to pass along the usual lore: that lying will make the child feel bad, that the child’s lies will be transparent, and that deceit will be more severely punished than any acknowledged transgression. The hope is that lying will be deterred or (at least) that the caregiver’s prophesies of shame will be self-fulfilling. By vilifying deception, stereotypes of the liar are designed to extend the reach of societal norms to actions that go unwitnessed (pp. 69-70).

You should read the original article than rely on Abrahams’ effort – the reference is below, and the link takes you to a free pdf download of the full article.

There’s a strange and sad post-script (or should that be ‘prescript’, since the events happened before the Guardian article was published) to this story: Charles F Bond, the lead author and one of very few researchers who have taken the trouble to conduct research on deception in non-Western populations, has been in the news recently after being arrested for allegedly threatening colleagues.


  • Global Deception Research Team (2006). A World of Lies [pdf]. Journal Of Cross-cultural Psychology 37(1):60-74.

Photo credit: Allison_mc, Creative Commons License

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