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May 30, 2019

Can You Spot a Lie?

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Research suggests that lying is a regular part of our daily interactions, so Jess sat down with Carolyn and Jeff on Global TV’s The Morning Show to discuss the research in terms of prevalence, consequences and how to overcome a lie. Check out the video and summary below.

What do people lie about in dating and relationships?

Research suggests that we tend to lie about the following topics in our dating profiles:

Appearance – Both men and women are likely to lie about physical characteristics such as height (50% have lied and men are more likely to stretch the truth) and weight (women are more likely to subtract pounds — an average of 8.5 for women and 1.5 for men).

Age and Income – Whether they round down to the lower age bracket or round up to a higher income bracket, both men and women are dishonest in this department. If your love interest is sporting fashion or a hairstyle from another decade in their profile pic, they might be lying about their age. Daters also tend to lie about (or embellish) their job title; look for mismatches in their education and job titles as a red flag.

Interests – We all want to seem more interesting and multidimensional than we actually are, so we enhance our list of interests to reflect this desire. If someone says they enjoy “culture” or “the outdoors”, as questions to that allow them to describe details of these interests (e.g. “Do you have a favourite gallery/club/band in your hometown?” or “Do you have a favourite hike?”). If they answer generally and avoid specifics, this may be a sign that they’re not as interested in these areas as they claim.

In relationships, we often lie to maintain harmony, protect our own self-image, and avoid negative consequences. We might lie about our past romantic or sexual history, our sexual desires and our more difficult feelings (which often begins with lying to ourselves).

How common is lying?

One study found that lying is the norm: we lie in 20% of interactions that last ten or more minutes and over the course of a week, we’re dishonest with 30% of people with whom we interact. Another study found that sixty percent of us report telling no lies in a 24-hour period. The great variance in prevalence of self-report suggests that perhaps we also lie about lying.

What are the costs of lying?

We often lie to avoid distress or hurt feelings, but lying can lead to these feelings intensifying, as you strive to keep up with your own lie or if the person to whom you’ve lied finds out and feels betrayed.

Lying also hinders intimacy and the guilt of a lie can develop into shame over time and this can undermine our sense of self-worth. As the differential between our real self and how others perceive us widens, it can adversely affect our self-esteem.

In the case of lying in a relationship, the pain of secrecy or lying can be worse than the transgression itself in some cases.

Is it ever okay to lie to your partner (or a friend, colleague or loved one)?

Pro-social lies have been shown to enhance relationships when the intention is positive and intended to support their best interests. For example, you might avoid sharing bad news before a big event or you might not tell your partner that they could improve a presentation because they don’t have time to do so before taking the stage. You might highlight positive feedback first to avoid hurting your partner’s feelings or you might avoid giving honest feedback to someone you don’t know well. The intention and timing of a lie matters and research suggests that little white lies with positive intentions can be good for relationships.

Anti-social lies that are intended to cover up behaviour or misdeeds or get more of what you want, however, are detrimental to relationships.

How can you spot a lie?

Look for changes in communication patterns including the way they stand, tone, cadence, facial expressions, eye contact and the amount of detail provided. It’s the shift from baseline communication that can be an indication of their discomfort, which may indicate that they’re being dishonest.

But also bear in mind that the real research reveals even the most skilled among us (e.g. police officers, psychologists) are ineffective at detecting lies.

The cues that we associate with lying with (e.g. closed body language and lack of eye contact) simply don’t exist — especially with expert liars.

You might, however, be able to increase your chances of spotting a lie by asking more questions so that they need to share additional information in a different order. Much of the research surrounding lie detection is drawn from the field of criminal investigation. It may not apply in relationships, but you can learn more here.

How can you recover from a lie?

One of the problems with lying is that one lie tends to lead to another. You lie about being sick and cancelling on a friend and then they ask how you’re doing and you have to continue to lie to support the original lie.

One option for overcoming a lie involves coming clean. In the case of lying about being sick, you might admit that you were feeling overwhelmed and didn’t know how to be honest about your own feelings. Take responsibility, apologize and commit to being more honest in the future. If you’ve lied about something important in the relationship, you may also need to answer follow-up questions to assuage your partner’s concerns and actively look for opportunities to rebuild trust.