Good Liars: Their Characteristics and Why They are So Hard to Detect
Updated: Aug 24
[NOTE: This post was updated December 2017]
Politicians and car salesmen are notorious for being dishonest. But what’s often overlooked are skilled liars who might be a coworker, a supervisor, a top executive, a family member, or even a neighbor. It isn’t until a major scandal, like the ones involving Ponzi schemers Allen Stanford and Bernie Madoff, that people take note that lying is more pervasive and much more difficult to detect than we think.
The scandal in 2009 involved CEO Allen Stanford and other top executives of Stanford Financial Group. They were charged and convicted of fraud for scheming investors (for more than two decades). Allen Stanford was sentenced to 110 years in prison for a $7 billion Ponzi scheme.
The NY Times article said: “Prosecutors argued that Mr. Stanford had consistently lied to investors, promoting safe investments for money that he channeled into a luxurious lifestyle, a Swiss bank account and various business deals that almost never succeeded.” It also stated that Stanford was convicted “of running an international scheme over more than two decades in which he offered fraudulent high-interest certificates of deposit at the Stanford International Bank, which was based on the Caribbean island of Antigua.”
And, even as he made his final statement in court, Stanford continued to lie by saying: “I’m up here to tell you from my heart I didn’t run a Ponzi scheme.” The federal prosecutor called his statement “obscene” and said this: “This is a man utterly without remorse . . . from beginning to end, he treated all of his victims as roadkill.”
But a scandal in late 2008 is perhaps even more outrageous and infamous. It involved Bernie Madoff, wherein he lied, stole and laundered money, and deceived thousands of investors out of billions of dollars. Even more incredible was that the scheme lasted for two or even three decades! Madoff was sentenced to 150 years in prison for his Ponzi scheme.
An article in Scientific American led me to a book by professor Aldert Vrij called “Detecting Lies and Deceit” (Vrij, 2008). Professor Vrij defines deception or lying as:
“a successful or unsuccessful deliberate attempt, without forewarning, to create in another a belief which the communicator considers to be untrue” (Vrij, 2008, p. 15).
Dr. Vrij identified three different categories that make detection of lying challenging: (1) a lack of motivation to detect lies; (2) difficulties associated with lie detection; and (3) common errors made by lie detectors. I want to focus on “good liars” (identified on pp. 378-381), one of the seven reasons listed under “difficulties associated with lie detection.”
“Good liars are those people: (i) whose natural behaviour disarms suspicion; (ii) who do not find it cognitively difficult to lie; and (iii) who do not experience emotions such as fear, guilt, or duping delight when they are lying” (Vrij, 2008, p. 378).
CHARACTERISTICS OF GOOD LIARS
There are 8 Characteristics of Good Liars (Vrij, 2008, p. 378-379):
(1) Being natural performers: “Directed gaze to a conversation partner, smiling, head nodding, leaning forward, direct body orientation, posture mirroring, uncrossed arms, articulate gesturing, moderate speaking rates, a lack of ums and ers, and vocal variety” are often associated with being honest and likable.
(2) Being well prepared: “Good liars therefore say as little as possible or say things that are impossible for others to verify. The less verifiable information is given, the less opportunity it provides for the lie detector to check.” The better the preparation (and the more believable the lie), the easier it is for good liars to lie effectively.
(3) Being original: People who are especially good at lying are mentally creative and original. They’re able to offer a convincing and credible answer in almost any situation.
(4) Rapid thinking: Good liars are quick to respond to a question because waiting too long to answer would arouse suspicion. Thus, being able to think quickly is an important characteristic.
(5) Being eloquent: Being eloquent, in the context of being a good liar, means that you provide a long-winded, intentionally vague response to avoid answering the question. Good liars might even say something that, on the surface, sounds plausible, but actually does not answer the question. Just imagine a skilled politician dodging a question and you get the idea.
(6) Good memory: Good liars must have a good memory or else they risk getting caught in their web of lies. They have to be able to recall what they’ve previously said so they can repeat theta same information without contradicting themselves.
(7) Not experiencing guilt, fear, or delight: “Deceiving others is made easier if the liar does not experience feelings of guilt, fear or delight, because in that case there will not be any emotional behaviour that needs to be suppressed.”
(8) Good at acting: If a person is not a “natural performer” (the first characteristic listed) or they are not especially skilled at masking their guilt, fear, or delight when lying (the seventh characteristic listed), then being a good actor is a must. Good liars are masters with excellent decoding skills. They can adapt to quickly to disarm suspicion.
SPOTTING LIARS IS DIFFICULT DUE TO LIE DETECTION MISTAKES
Under “Common Errors Made by Lie Detectors”, Dr Vrij explained that, in addition to lie detection being difficult, those who play the role of lie detectors also make SEVEN mistakes. I’ll just mention five mistakes below.
(1) Examining the Wrong Cues: Lie detectors (referring to people whose job is to spot liars, such as police detectives) might look at the wrong cues. For instance, one police manual says that liars tend to look away and make grooming gestures. But a lie detection study, Dr. Vrij found that the more police officers endorsed the lie cues promoted in that police manual, the worse they were at detecting suspects who lied and suspects who told the truth.
(2) Neglect of Interpersonal Differences: There are large differences when it comes to people’s behavior, speech, and physiological responses. “The result is that people whose natural behaviour looks suspicious (e.g., people who naturally avert their gaze or fidget a lot) are in a disadvantageous position, because they run the risk of being falsely accused of lying . . . Introverted and socially anxious people in particular run such a risk” (Vrij, 2008, p. 383).
(3) Neglect of Intrapersonal Differences: “Not only do different people respond differently in the same situation (interpersonal differences), the same person also responds differently in different situations (intrapersonal differences). Neglecting or underestimating those intrapersonal differences is another error that lie catchers make. The failure to control adequately for intrapersonal differences is one of the main criticisms of concern-based polygraph tests” (Vrij, 2008, p. 383).
(4) Use of Heuristics: Following general decision rules (heuristics) can easily lead to mistakes and biases. For example, facial appearance heuristic is the “tendency to judge people with attractive faces or baby-faced appearances as honest” (Vrij, 2008, p. 385). And the fundamental attribution error which occurs when we form impressions of others and then overestimate their character factors while underestimating situational factors. Thus, if we believe someone to be trustworthy, we will judge that person a telling the truth in any given situation. On the other hand, if we think someone is untrustworthy, we’ll tend to judge that individual as dishonest in any given situation. “Obviously, trustworthy people are not honest all of the time and untrustworthy people are not always dishonest” (Vrij, 2008, p. 385).
(5) Overestimating the Accuracy of Lie Detection Tools: We tend to overestimate the accuracy of lie detection tools. However, despite the belief that polygraphs or fMRI brain scans are effective, Dr. Vrij argued that “every single lie detection tool used to date is far from accurate and prone to errors” (p. 386).
Polygraphs measure finger sweating, blood pressure, and respiration. Dr. Vrij explained that one of the most frequently used polygraph test today is the Comparison Question Test (CQT), also referred to as the Control Question Test. I would recommend reading Ch. 11 “Physiological Lie Detection: The Concern Approach” of his book for a detailed explanation about the CQT and the criticisms of the CQT. Professor Vrij (pp. 304-305 citing Iacono ) contended there are three reasons why the CQT is controversial: (i) there is no consensus amongst scientists that there exists an adequate theoretical foundation for its application; (ii) the polygraph profession operates outside the scientific environment and is practiced most by law enforcement officials trained at freestanding polygraph schools that are unrelated to universities; and (iii) polygraph tests can have profound consequences for individuals subjected to them. [*It's not the intent of this post to argue for or against the merits of the CQT because I do not possess expertise in this area. However, the criticisms about the CQT are worth noting.]
According to Dr. Vrij, when we try to deceive others, we activate higher centers of the brain. fMRI scans (when used to detect deception or lying) are supposed to reveal this. However, “different people tested in the same situation revealed different patterns of brain structure and area activity when they lied (interpersonal differences) and the same person shows different patterns of brain structure and area activity when he or she lies in different situations (intrapersonal differences)” (Vrij, 2008, p. 371). Therefore, Dr. Vrij argued, fMRI scans aren’t much different from the traditional polygraph lie detectors.
“So far, research has not yet shown that the fMRI technique does produce more accurate results than traditional polygraph testing, and I therefore do not recommend using such scans in real-life settings for lie detection purposes” (Vrij, 2008, p. 372).
The sad reality is that there are very skilled liars who are able to effectively lie for years or, in the case of Allen Stanford and Bernie Madoff, even decades before they’re caught. And, I suspect, there are many other good liars who have never been and probably will never be caught.
A 2016 study in Nature Neuroscience discovered that our brain actually adapts to being dishonest, and that habitual lying can desensitize our brains from “feeling bad,” and may even encourage us to tell bigger lies in the future.
Bottom line: Good liars (those with natural behavior that disarms suspicion, who do not find it cognitively difficult to lie, and who do not experience fear, guilt, or delight when they are lying) can be very hard to spot because they’re really skilled in the art of lying. Even polygraphs and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanning techniques cannot adequately identify those who are good at lying because these lie detection methods have important limitations.
Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D. Organizational & Leadership Development Leader
Bering, J. (July, 2011). 18 Attributes of Highly Effective Liars. Scientific American. Retrieved from http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/bering-in-mind/2011/07/07/18-attributes-of-highly-effective-liars/
Bernard, S. (February, 2009). Baylor alum accused of money fraud. Retrieved from http://www.baylor.edu/lariat/news.php?action=story&story=56377
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Iacono, W. G. (2000). The detection of deception. In J. T. Cacioppo, L. G. Tassinary, & G. G. Berntson (Eds.), Handbook of psychophysiology, 2nd edition (pp. 772–793). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
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Vrij, A. (2008). Detecting lies and deceit: Pitfalls and opportunities (2nd ed.). West Sussex, England: John Wiley & Sons.