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Detecting deception: How to tell if your source is lying to you

By D.B Narveson

Unfortunately, Pinocchio’s nose doesn’t exist.

There is no hard and fast rule to decipher whether someone is lying, and detecting deception depends on the context and your knowledge of the person speaking. But asking your source a lot of questions can help, according to Jeff Hancock, a professor at Stanford University.

Hancock spent years researching how and when people lie in face-to-face interactions and in digital correspondence, finding a few patterns than can also help.

“In face-to-face contact, liars tend to say less overall,” Hancock said. “Online liars say more overall.”

But that’s also a tricky pattern, Hancock said, because people typically lie less in an email than in person.

Often when people are lying, they will decrease their use of first person pronouns. By dropping “I” and “we,” the liar is distancing himself from the lie.

Now this doesn’t always work, Hancock said, but it often holds true. His finding was backed by research digging into statements said by past presidential administrations.

“People often assume that liars will lie more because they can,” Hancock said. “Instead, most people actually prefer to tell the truth.”

Cheryl Phillips, a lecturer at Stanford University, said she encourages reporters to speak with sources multiple ways: in person, on the phone and via email. This provides a written record of what is said should a source be caught in a lie, and provides context for how the source in the story communicates.  

Hancock cited research about the results of criminal interrogation techniques in the U.S. and U.K.

In the U.S., interrogations often start with the assumption of guilt and interrogators use terms like, “we know what you did and why,” which can encourage false testimony. In the U.K. the interrogator asks question after question about what happened to get as many details as possible, which can reveal if someone is lying without encouraging false confessions.

Most people want to see themselves as honest people and go between lying when they feel like they need to and lying to the point that they feel they are a dishonest person.

Hancock recommended two books for those wishing to learn more about detecting liars: “Detecting Lies and Deceit: Pitfalls and Opportunities” by Aldert Vrij and “The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone---Especially Ourselves” by Dan Ariely.


D. B. Narveson is a mass communication senior at Louisiana State University. She is editor of and a member of the Manship News Service Statehouse Bureau covering the Louisiana Legislature.


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