The Language of Lying
We hear anywhere from 10 to 200 lies a day. And we’ve spent much of our history coming up with ways to detect them, from medieval torture devices to polygraphs, blood pressure and breathing monitors, voice stress analyzers, eye trackers, infrared brain scanners, and even the 400-pound electroencephalogram.
But although such tools have worked under certain circumstances, most can be fooled with enough preparation, and none are considered reliable enough to even be admissible in court. But what if the problem is not with the techniques, but the underlying assumption that lying spurs physiological changes? What if we took a more direct approach, using communications science to analyze the lies themselves?
On a psychological level, we lie partly to paint a better picture of ourselves, connecting our fantasies to the person we wish we were rather than the person we are. But while our brain is busy dreaming, it’s letting plenty of signals slip by. Our conscious mind only controls about 5% of our cognitive function, including communication, while the other 95% occurs beyond our awareness. And according to the literature on “reality monitoring,” stories based on imagined experiences are qualitatively different from those based on real experiences. This suggests that creating a false story about a personal topic takes work and results in a different pattern of language use. A technology known as linguistic text analysis has helped to identify four such common patterns in the subconscious language of deception.
First, liars reference themselves less when making deceptive statements. They write or talk more about others, often using the third person to distance and disassociate themselves from their lie. Which sounds more false: “Absolutely no party took place at this house,” or “I didn’t host a party here”?
Second, liars tend to be more negative, because, on a subconscious level they feel guilty about lying. For example, a liar might say something like, “Sorry, my stupid phone battery died. I hate that thing.”
Third, liars typically explain events in simple terms, since our brains struggle to build a complex lie. Judgment and evaluation are complex things for our brain to compute.
And finally, even though liars keep descriptions simple, they tend to use longer and more convoluted sentence structure, inserting unnecessary words and irrelevant but factual-sounding details in order to pad the lie.
So how can you apply these lie-spotting techniques to your life? The lies we encounter on a daily basis vary in seriousness, and may even be harmless. But it’s still worthwhile to be aware of tell-tale clues like minimal self-references, negative language, simple explanations, and convoluted phrasing. It just might help you avoid an overvalued stock, an ineffective product… or even a terrible relationship.
From the TED-Ed Lesson The language of lying - Noah Zandan
Animation by The Moving Company Animation Studio