Why people lie and what you can do about it

April 3, 2018
Category: Fact-Checking

This article was originally published on FactCheckingDay.com for International Fact-Checking Day on April 2.

For journalists, the stakes for getting the facts right have only risen with the onslaught of claims about fake news. 

In November, journalists at The Washington Post caught an employee of Project Veritas trying to feed them a false story about United States Senate candidate Roy Moore. In December, a Dutch journalist called out a U.S. ambassador as he lied in real time about “no-go” zones for radical Muslims in the Netherlands. 

Don Tennant, a former National Security Agency analyst and author of "Spy the Lie” and “Get the Truth,” experienced lies firsthand during his years as a tech journalist.

In the 1990s, when he was editor in chief of the trade publication Computerworld in Hong Kong, Tennant sat down to interview Larry Ellison, CEO of Oracle. The software company was set to introduce a new computer, and analysts and investors wanted to know whether it would be a success. 

When Tennant started asking Ellison about the forthcoming project, something felt off. 

“I noticed at the time that things just didn’t fit, but I couldn’t put my finger on it,” he said. 

Ellison, who was wearing a bathrobe and sitting in his hotel room for the interview, kept cinching his robe tighter as he repeatedly claimed the new computer was being built by the best engineers in the world and could compete against Microsoft. Despite a few follow-up questions, Ellison stuck to his guns, so Tennant did not challenge him. 

The new computer eventually came out, and it tanked. Ellison had lied in his conviction that the computer would be the successful PC alternative that he so staunchly claimed. He was pushing the product to market out of pride and ego, Tennant said. 

Tennant now works for QVerity, a company founded by former CIA employees specializing in deception detection and critical interviewing techniques. He trains people in catching lies like Ellison’s. 

And humans need help — we are terrible at catching lies. 

Estimates vary, but generally people are about as good as a coin toss at detecting deception. For journalists, seeking truth is part of the job description, so a 50-50 shot at determining truthfulness is problematic.

“Our default is to assume people are being truthful to us,” said Robert Feldman, author of “The Liar in Your Life.” 

“As a journalist, though, you want to take the opposite stance and assume what you are hearing is not an accurate reflection of reality.”

There are cognitive reasons people tell lies, said Feldman, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. 

Some lies (“You look great today!”) simply smooth social interactions. Others are used for self-aggrandizement (“I’m an ideal coworker.”) or for self-deception, when people may want to pretend a situation is not as bad as they originally thought. People also lie to harm others or for self-gain. 

“Lying is an effective social strategy because we are almost never called on lies that we tell, so they become ingrained,” Feldman said. 

It is not only cognitively easier for people to lie in certain situations, but accepting lies is also natural, so you do not have to spend time parsing out what you are being told, Feldman said.

Despite that, lies aren’t necessarily the norm. Angie Holan, editor of PolitiFact (a Poynter-owned project), said that her typical experiences with sources are positive and most are forthright. 

When she does see deception, it is usually from someone who has a particular viewpoint, like an advocacy organization or representative for a candidate that knows being truthful would be detrimental to their side or their candidate. 

“Lies tend to stick out as being weird or odd and do not fit in nicely with a truthful ecosystem,” Holan said. 

If she hears something from a source that is clearly false and doesn’t fit the rest of her research, she discards it as evidence. She looks for “honest brokers” to speak with who will not benefit or suffer from a particular report. 

“All good journalists over time develop what they feel is a pretty good B.S. meter. They can just tell the source isn’t shooting straight,” Tennant said.

When journalists start guessing whether or not sources are lying, though, they can introduce their own biases and preconceptions, Tennant said. Instead of focusing just on hunches, Tennant gives people a codified approach to follow. 

People often falsely believe that a behavior like crossing one’s arms is a sure-fire indication of deception; it is not. To assume that how someone is dressed, sitting or looking at you correlates with a lie is a misconception, Tennant said. Only behaviors that directly follow a question should be judged as indicators of whether a response is truthful.

Feldman agrees. 

“You can’t look at a person and know that they are lying, because each of us has our own idiosyncratic group of signs,” he said. 

There are five “buckets” of verbal and nonverbal responses Tennant recommends looking out for after you ask a question. 

The first is evasion. 

“This is probably the easiest thing to spot and the biggest red flag,” Tennant said. “It’s what sets the journalist’s B.S. meter off: You ask the question and they don’t answer. Politicians are famous for this.” 

Oftentimes journalists will simply continue on to their next question, which allows sources to get away with evasion. 

The second bucket encompasses nonverbal behaviors — things sources may do without realizing it.

“If the question you ask creates a spike in anxiety, the autonomic nervous system kicks in and activity will help dissipate the anxiety,” Tennant said.

This could involve shifting in a chair, grooming gestures like adjusting one’s hair or, in the case of Tennant’s interview with Ellison, repeatedly cinching a bathrobe. 

Bucket No. 3 involves persuasion, which is when a source begins making what Tennant calls convincing statements. If someone is being deceptive, they may try to persuade a journalist with statements like, “I would never do that,” “Why would I do that?” or “I’m an honest person.”

Tennant’s fourth bucket is aggression, or a source going into attack mode because they are backed into a corner. 

Finally, Tennant’s fifth bucket is manipulation. 

This could come in the form of non-answers that buy a source time. Tennant said people think far faster than they speak, so a small filler statement like “That’s a good question” may only take a second to say, but could give someone enough breathing room to construct a lie. 

While no one behavior definitively means your source is lying to you, looking out for some indicators can be a good starting place. 

Choosing the right medium for an interview is also important, and there are trade-offs for anything that is not face-to-face. On the phone and over email, Tennant’s indicators can get lost. People tend to lie most over the phone — even more than over email, according to psychologist Jeff Hancock

Asking better questions in the first place can also cut down on deception, Tennant said. 

He points to two types of questions that are powerful, but rarely used. If a journalist simply asks a source if he or she was present at a meeting, the person can easily lie and say no. Using a “presumptive question” can make a denial harder. For example, asking, “What was the tone of that meeting?” 

The second type of question he recommends is a “bait question.” This begins with the phrase, “Is there any reason…” For example: “Is there any reason another source from the meeting would say you were not in the room?” 

With both of these question formats, someone telling the truth could easily answer, but for a liar, these are hard to process and respond to. 

Feldman also suggests asking open-ended questions in multiple ways and reminding sources that you do not have preconceived notions. 

“One of the most interesting things behind the motivation of lying is sometimes there is a situation where we want to be told lies and what we believe to be true,” Feldman said. “We want information that will confirm our own hypotheses. That is a bias you have to be really careful about.” 

Like any skill, Tennant said you can become a better lie detector with practice. He recommends listening to and watching as many interviews between other people as possible to practice looking for indicator behaviors that follow questions. 

“People do not get better at telling lies,” Tennant said. “They might get better at convincing you they are telling the truth, but they will not get better at avoiding or exhibiting these behaviors.”