No one likes insincere people.
Trust is an important aspect of our relationship with others and it forms the basis of how we measure our closeness to a person. That trust is built largely on experience and knowledge of what a person is like. After a while, we learn someone’s personality until we get a grasp of their verbal and non-verbal quirks.
Though we don’t actively think about it, these behavioral patterns form the baseline of what we think of as normal behavior for that person. Anything else that deviates from that baseline will unsettle us, giving us the impression that something is off.
You’ve likely had one of those moments when you realize a friend is in a worse mood than usual or that they feel differently from what they say. While our most accurate use of our built-in lie detectors is with friends, they’re typically not the people we want to be using these skills on. You have more reason to be wary of whether a person is telling the truth when that person is a complete stranger.
If you want to make sure that the chatty old lady talking you up at the parking lot is really just a friendly person and not an insincere one with sinister motives, read on.
4 Clues That They’re Being Insincere
It’s easy enough to spot a bad liar, but harder, even next to impossible, to pick out the very best of them. When a person comes to you with a tightly woven story to support their agenda, how can you tell if they’re lying to you?
According to “leakage theory,” no amount of experience and talent in lying can completely hide the fear of being caught. The concept of leakage theory goes like this: no matter how much a person rehearses their behavior, they will “leak” non-verbal facial cues that reflect their real thought process. It’s similar to Freud’s idea of Freudian slips but instead of incestuous innuendos, people get caught making what’s called a “microexpression”.
A microexpression is a facial expression that occurs in as little as 1/30 of a second. Typically, microexpressions are too quick for the human eye to actively notice. The involuntary nature of microexpressions makes them impossible to control even though the brain actively tries to lie with its face as well. The struggle for control between the active mental system and the involuntary response to an emotion results in the leakages that leakage theory talks about.
Now, is it possible for you to learn how to catch these microexpressions as they occur? Yes, but probably not. That being said, the next time you have a bad feeling about someone, listen to your gut instinct a little more. It might be your unconscious mind registering information that goes unnoticed to your conscious one.
2. Inappropriate Eye Contact
Don’t be fooled by common knowledge: liars, especially the good ones, won’t shy away from making eye contact. A study by Mann et al. in 2013 found that contrary to popular belief, liars actually make more eye contact than people who are telling the truth.
But if that’s the case, why do many studies say that liars tend to avert their gaze when telling a lie? This likely comes down to one factor: nervousness. It’s a widespread belief that liars are nervous people. Research has found that everyone from your average joe to law enforcement officers believes that signs of nervousness mean that a person is being insincere to the point that post-9/11, new TSA screening methods instructed officers to look for nervous cues in passengers as a means of pinpointing potential terrorists.
Prisoners, however, generally don’t think the same way. More of them tend to be aware of how charming liars can be. Good liars shift into a persuasive mode of speech and will alter their behavior to make themselves more convincing. This includes adopting a more relaxed and open stance and maintaining eye contact to actively convince the person they’re lying to.
3. Changes in Hand Movements
A lot of people talk with their hands. Hand gestures exist as a way for us to emphasize our talking points and to keep track of our thoughts, which is why you see a lot of people on TedTalk do it.
Psychologist Susan Goldin-Meadow says that the act of gesticulating while talking allows us to save mental energy spent on storing information in our working memory. You know, the stuff you’re talking about while gesticulating.
Studies in the field of deception research have found that hand gestures fall into two main categories. You have illustrators, people who supplement their speech with hand movements, and self-adaptors, people who self-soothe while speaking.
The former type of gesticulation is where the lies tend to crop up. When a person is telling the truth, they’re likelier to move their hands as the narrative they’re telling comes to them naturally. If they’re being insincere though, those hand gestures start to decrease or even completely disappear as they become unable to maintain the mental load of telling a complex lie and coordinating their hand movements.
4. A Lack of New Details
It’s hard to catch an experienced liar, but one way you can trip them up is to observe the way they tell their lie. Many liars come up with a narrative that they stick to regardless of how many times they tell their story.
Despite what you may have been led to believe, people who tell the truth are actually likely to change their story with each telling. Granted, they won’t make drastic changes to their account of events. But you’ll find that they add details to the story they’re telling, the more times they’re asked to tell it. Truth tellers often provide a basic outline first and will fill it in the more they’re prodded for additional information.
Liars, on the other hand, will be more consistent. It takes a lot of mental energy to lie so repeatedly telling the exact same story, down to the last detail, is an easier way for them to create a consistent and believable narrative. This becomes more evident when you talk to two liars together as they will tend to tell their story linearly without responding to the new information the other person provides.
A pair of honest people, on the other hand, will actively collaborate with each other to reconstruct their memories of events. This results in portions of the conversation being dedicated to confirming with the other person whether they’re remembering correctly or not.
Interestingly, this is also the same cognitive mechanism behind why people can be given false memories, leading them to lie without intending to. Julia Shaw, a psychological scientist from University College London, has demonstrated that people can be convinced they committed a violent crime when they were younger by providing them with leading questions. The subjects would then start to fill in the details themselves once they start believing in the lie, much like how people add more details when they believe themselves to be telling the truth. Psychological phenomena like these make it so that eyewitnesses are less reliable than you think.
Can These Clues Actually Tell You How to Catch Someone Who Is Insincere? Well, Not Really.
Notwithstanding the case-to-case inconsistencies that naturally come with any attempt to measure human behavior, the truth is that you will likely still suck at recognizing a liar.
If you haven’t noticed by now, a few of the clues you can use for catching a liar are contrary to popular beliefs about how liars act. Unfortunately, the kind of liar you’d want to look out for isn’t the type who will be easily fazed by a little pressure. More likely than not, the people you will end up catching by following nervousness-based cues are going to be people who just have nervous tendencies. That can be anyone, guilty or not.
“Human Lie-Detection Performance: Does Random Assignment versus Self-Selection of Liars and Truth-Tellers Matter?” is a study published in 2020 by the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition. The goal of this research? To reveal just how much people suck at identifying insincere people.
The study took 72 male economy students and told them that they were going to participate in a study on economic decision-making. Participants were then told that they would be paired up with another participant with whom they’ll be playing a trust-game dilemma.
Each participant was given 50 Swedish krona which they could double to 200 if they trusted the other person enough to transfer the amount to them and let them decide on how it’s going to be allocated between them.
This left one partner with the task of convincing the other partner to transfer the money. Whoever had to do the convincing was told to do it with a video message that allowed for their facial expressions to be recorded. Of course, some of these participants lied and took most of the money. But what’s interesting is that it demonstrated that the average person’s lie-detecting skills are on par with if they had just flipped a coin to decide whether to trust the other person or not.
Let’s not get started on lie detector tests. Lie detector tests, also called polygraph tests, are often seen in crime and law dramas where a suspected criminal is hooked up to a machine that tracks their vitals while they answer interrogation questions or provide testimony.
It looks cool, sure. But a polygraph is about as accurate as gazing into a crystal ball in court. Because they measure respiration, heart rate, and skin conductivity, polygraphs also overlap with signs of plain nervousness.
This is without going into their inherent flaws as a method of questioning. While the polygraph can definitely be used to supplement inferences made on whether a person is lying or not, the lack of standardization in the questions asked means that you can’t expect any reliability from a polygraph result.
But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to catch a liar.
A study called “Sitting in Judgement: How Body Posture Influences Deception Detection and Gazing Behavior” found that simply changing your posture can help you improve your ability to tell when someone is being insincere. This is because our body’s posture can affect the way we focus on and process information.
Studies have shown that people who maintain an upright posture recall pleasant memories faster, supporting the existence of a link between posture, memory, and cognition.
Meanwhile, closed posture has been shown to activate our behavioral inhibition system, making us less expressive and open to reacting to other people’s behavioral cues. The researchers found that participant judges who adopted a closed posture were more attentive to another person’s body language, focusing largely on their hands.
Of course, the study isn’t final and there’s still a lot of work to be done before we can go full Minority Report on insincere people. Before that happens though, be wary of anyone who tells you there are 100% sure ways to tell when someone is lying because that in itself is a lie.