You are lied to dozens of times every day. They range from little white lies, such as people telling you they are doing great when in fact they are having a terrible day, to serious lies from loved ones and employers that have the potential to change your life. Being able to understand when, why, and how people lie helps you establish more honest relationships and prevent disasters from happening due to being falsely informed.

In his TED talk, psychologist Jeff Hancock explains some of the science of lying:

Jeff Hancock: 3 types of (digital) lies

Here are nine things you should know about liars:

We’re All Liars

While you might like to think you’re an honest person, statistically speaking you too are a liar. Researchers estimate the average person lies a minimum of once to twice per day. If you don’t believe me, ask yourself these questions: 

  • Do you ever give people compliments that aren’t completely genuine? 
  • Have you told someone you were doing well when, in reality, you were exhausted and having a terrible week? 
  • Do you ever tell people you are busy to avoid having to talk to them for an extended period of time or do something with them?

If you answered yes to any of those questions, then you’ve lied. Those are just a couple of the common scenarios that trigger the most lying. 

‘Normal’ Liars vs. ‘Prolific’ Liars

The good news? Most people are honest. Recent research shows that the majority of lies are told by the same, small group of people known as “prolific liars.” In the study Variance in the Prevalence of Lying, researchers created a statistical model for distinguishing prolific liars from the everyday or ‘normal’ liar.  

Here’s how you can try spotting a prolific liar:

  • Prolific liars are those who report that they tell five or more lies per day. 
  • Prolific liars tend to be younger, male, and have higher occupational statuses.
  • They are likely to lie the most to their partners and children.
  • They are more likely than the average person to believe that lying is acceptable in some circumstances. 
  • They are less likely to lie because of concern for others and more likely to lie for their own self-interest, such as to protect a secret.
  • Prolific liars tell five and a half lies for every one white lie told by an average person.
  • They tell 19.1 lies for every one big lie told by an average person.

Police Have an Eye For Thieves

One would hope that police officers, because they spend much of their time trying to separate the guilty from the innocent, would be good at lie detection. Unfortunately, studies have found that most officers are no better at identifying lies than the average person. However, they do excel at one aspect of lie detection: spotting dishonest people in public settings.  

When shown videos of thieves interacting with innocent people while preparing to steal, police officers were able to spot the criminals at a significantly higher rate than either police in training and students. This is significant because it reveals a common problem with lie detection: people often mistake stress as lying signals. 

The reason police are able to identify criminals in a public setting is because, as the thieves are preparing to steal, they are more stressed than the circumstances of being in public would demand. On the other hand, during police interviews even innocent people are stressed because they are trying to prove their innocence. It is how people behave differently, versus what would be expected for the circumstances, that reveals lies, not certain behaviors in general. 

Familiarity Effects on Lie Detection

Can you spot lies better in situations in which you’re more familiar? The research says yes

In this study, a team of psychologists conducted four experiments revealing that situational familiarity leads to more accurate judgments regarding truth and deception.

People who weren’t as familiar with their situations couldn’t distinguish lies from truths any higher than 50 percent, whereas people who were highly familiar with their situations were able to detect deception with 8-23 percent more accuracy.

Part of this is because when people are more familiar with the situations and/or people they are talking with, they have more baseline information and contextual cues to refer to.

People Prefer to Lie for Their Teams

Studies have found that people are more willing to lie to receive incentives that benefit their entire team rather than incentives that are just for themselves. For example, employees are more likely to lie to their boss about the progress of a project when doing so prevents their entire team from getting in trouble rather than just themselves. 

Researchers suspect the willingness to lie in team environments isn’t entirely selfless, though. In group environments people tend to feel less guilty for lying because they are helping others. They are less afraid to lie because there is less of a chance of them being caught and suffering the entire blame because everyone on their team is implicated.

Lying in Email vs Pen and Paper

The frequency of lying does change based on the medium, but can it change within the same one? Researchers have found that people are more likely to lie when using email versus pen and paper. This is wild!

Both are the same in terms of “media richness,” meaning both forms are text only. Yet, people lie more, reveal less information, and feel more justified when using email than when sending a message via pen and paper. According to the study, “The findings were consistent, whether the task assured participants that their lie either would or would not be discovered by their counterparts.”

Memories of Liars

For the majority of people, lying about an event increased their certainty that the event in question did not happen when asked about it later.

However, 10-16 percent of the participants appeared to have had their memories altered by their lies because they reported believing their lies were actually true. Researchers believe that in those cases telling lies wields the same power as the imagination to alter memories.

Very clearly imagining events can trick the brain into labeling them as memories.

Bilingual Lying

If you think it’s hard lying in your native tongue, try lying in a second language.

Researchers have found that people show a greater stress response when lying in a second language because it is already more challenging to speak the second language, and lying increases the cognitive stress. In one specific study, results suggest that two main factors affect the physiological nature of an individual when they lie in another language: 1) arousal due to emotions associated with lying, and 2) anxiety about managing speech production in the non-native language.

Liars Struggle to Answer Why Questions

If you suspect someone might be lying to you but aren’t sure, an easy way to find out is to ask them “Why?” questions. It is much more difficult for people to lie about why they did something or why something happened than it is for them to lie about basic facts. If someone struggles to explain their intentions, it’s a major red flag that they are lying.

Ready to keep learning? Read on…

18 replies on “9 Things You Should Know About Liars”

  1. K S

    I know my relationship has been over for awhile now but he just can’t admit to being a liar and that he’s talking with his ex. He couldn’t be more obvious. I mean he’s told me I’ve changed, all things that used to be ‘cute’ now annoy him to no end. He used to listen to every word I said now he tunes me out. He makes every excuse to get away from me so he can be on his phone. It’s starts petty arguments, he not interested in me in the least…I’ve flat out asked him and he words ever response so as not to “lie”. His definition of a lie is to tell me the opposite of the truth but lying by omission to him is not lying because the words “I do not have contact with my ex” are never spoken..It’s pathetic by I know him after 4 years I am patiently waiting for it to slap me in the face but I’m prepared and I don’t dig for “evidence” it sucks the life out of a person and I just had heart surgery etc etc I’m 42 and this is new so I got enough on my plate. I don’t want him faking he cares because I’m sick though it makes me want to punch him. Like go back to her please but he won’t until she drops the bomb or he feels I spied or invaded his privacy so he can be justified in leaving me with evidence I’m not a good person. It’s classic but I’m not taking the bait lol ..mainly because of the house.

    1. Shelly anthony

      As I began reading I seen my exact experience in your story, so scary is its almost word for word my own. I haven’t had a heart attack yet though but I fear it’s in the near future for me if I choose to stay. Thank you validating what I’ve been going through as well.

  2. marie

    Lied before our first date. We have’t even met yet . supposed to meet this weekend. Talked every night for a week and half, 2hours every time. he tells me a lot about his life and I’ve asked a lot of questions. I asked him if he’s ever been arrested. he said no. I checked him out and found out he WAS arrested! For being with a prostitute 6 years ago. I get that maybe that’s not something you admit or talk about over the phone, but after our date I will ask again- Is there anything else you want to share that you think I might need to know if we pursue this any further. If he says NO, well yeah, bye bye.

  3. Liv

    Hi, so ive lied about a major arm injury for attention, i was the new kid at school, i didn’t know anyone and nobody would talk to me, i now have many friends, i still havent told the truth yet. Its summer, and my birthday is coming up, and i scared cuz im inviting them all, and what uf it comes up in conversation and my mom hears and questions it? I suck and feel like shit. I dont know if i should tell cuz that would make me an even worse person. Ive always had a lying problem since i was a kid, and never grew out of it. Im so scared.

  4. D

    I am not sure why I lied to my partner. He is understandable, caring, and no judgement at all. But when I want to disclose and communicate something with him I felt anxious and I lie.

    I feel like I’m a terrible person, I am really dying inside without knowing what is my real issue.

  5. alyssa

    today i lied and it has happened. i now regret it and want to say am sorry and that now to who is reading this lying just makes you suck and a horrible person and you feel like that every night on how to cover it up.

  6. Leah

    I used to think I was really good at reading people, turns out I was just really naive. In the past couple of years, people I trusted the most have turned out to be nothing but lying, cheating manipulators. They knew me better then I knew myself and seen me as fresh bait. Now I have a hard time trusting anyone. Even people I know I could like my family. I already had some serious issue going on that I definitely didn’t need the added hurt on top of it. It has really damaged me and I’m not sure ill ever be the fun loving person I once was. I guess what I’m trying to say is you don’t know what that person has already been through that even a white lie or one you can’t control will do to them. That white lie might just be what it takes to send them over the edge. Its funny when some accuses me of lying I just laugh. Because I know myself and I know my heart. Lying is far to difficult for me to try and keep straight. I’m just down right horrible at it and it makes me feel just awful. I’m so bad at it that I’m pretty sure everyone knows when I do try to lie. And for some reason this has made me look very vulnerable to the bad people. True they have gotten to me but I’m still here arent I? I really dont know what people gain out of doing these kinds of things. And how they can be so messed up that even their self conscious doesn’t know the truth. How does that even happen?? How does one hurt another when they know it will hurt them but then turn around and say they love them? I don’t think I will ever know the answer to this nor would I ever be able to understand it.

    1. Jennifer

      Please lie and get angry when they are hurt. It could be that these people who you feel have manipulated you are just really, really hurting inside. Or… they may just suck.

  7. West

    I’m a compulsive lier and I’m trying not to be it’s been like that since I was younger.its never intentional it kinda just comes out and I want to pull back the lie but by then it’s to late. I know I’m not a bad person I love hard I help others and I do nothing to hurt people.Idk if it’s fear or self hatred.but it needs to stop in currently in love with someone and I’ve lie to her and I hate it I feel like shit and I want to stop. In honestly want to kill myself at times because I want to stop a friend of mine say just stop doing it I try shits rolls of my lips so fast I don’t even notice I’m doing it. I don’t want to be like this I know I’m gonna loose her and I don’t want to. I know what I’m saying won’t fix what I did but all people that lie are not bad people. There something wrong with them I think I’ve figured out what made be like this but I know it starts from a child and goes up I don’t want to be like this

    1. Kensi Science of People

      I’m so sorry you’re feeling this way. We encourage you to reach out to someone you trust or professional help to better support you. Text CONNECT to 741741 to chat with a Crisis Counselor or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is Available 24 hours at 800-273-8255 -Kensi | Science of People Team

    2. Vivian

      Hi, I can understand your point of view and your pain. But please seek professional treatment if you love her and want to o be in love with someone. I have just ended my 10 years marriage because my husband is a liar and I can’t cope with it anymore. Neither can our 8 years old son, despite we still love him. But enough is enough. lying constantly is abuse and left us both fearing for the truth. Good luck and all the best!

      1. Elaine

        Vivian, I am currently going through the process of leaving my six year relationship – we live together as if we are married but not legally so. He has been lying to me since the beginning and I am finally done even though he says he wants to get help. It has caused me so much emotional stress and pain that I just cannot go back. Forgiveness is one thing. Forgetting something completely different. Lying is just unacceptable regardless but within the bounds of an intimate relationship is toxic to everyone involved.

    3. Be Good

      Dear West,

      You’re not alone. My child is on the receiving end of the lies in a relationship. She can’t (or doesn’t want to) see it. It’s so obvious to me and I need her to face reality about this guy.

      If you love her you should have a “come to Jesus” moment and tell her all of your lies. Start fresh with a clean slate going forward without anymore lying. If she loves you back, she will appreciate your honesty. Chances are she already questions some of your lies and being honest will go a long way to help her gain trust. Please seek help, you’re good enough as you are. You don’t need to lie to make yourself look better. If someone doesn’t love you for who you are, you need to move on anyway. Good luck.

      PS Are you also controlling? Just curious.

    4. Becki

      Then think before you speak another lie. YES you will loose her when she finds out you have been lying. I just broke off a 15 yr friendship because I could not take the lying any more and he started lying to my children. Once he did that is was over. I was done with him. JUST STOP NOW! Be honest how hard can that be. Your lies are hiding something about yourself. Maybe you lie to cover up wrong doing or to make yourself seem better than you are, low self esteem. But whatever it is figure it our and JUST STOP LYING!!!!!

  8. Laura Coventry

    Thank you! My BF closes his eyes quickly everytime he lies . I catch him red handed and he Denys it ! I’m so sick of it. Always denies and gets pushy flips the script on my actions ! He thinks leaving out Info. That would explain situations isn’t lieing ??? I can’t trust him !

  9. Izak sims

    I have read what you say about lie detection, and the information is valid. I guess I am the average person. I may have had experience with my parents in education, seeing students lie, then being a student. I believed I had more information than the average person. As my score was 0-5 on your pretest. Being around social workers, I tend to see more than the average amount of stories about lying. I know I can’t pick up on a lie unless I am comfortable, understanding contextual clues.

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