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Bering in Mind

Bering in Mind

A research psychologist's curious look at human behavior

18 Attributes of Highly Effective Liars

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Niccolò Machiavelli might well have titled his 16th-century Dell'arte Della Guerra (" The Art of War ") as The Art of Lying, since verbal deception—mainly, how to get away with it—was so central to his political psychology. To say that the exquisitely light-of-tongue are "talented" is, of course, sure to be met with moral outrage. We place a social premium on the ability to ferret out other people’s lies, especially, as we’ve seen just this week in the news, when they may hide brutal and ugly crimes.  

Still, there is something darkly fascinating about those skilled in verbal legerdemain. And at least one team of scientists, led by Dutch psychologist Aldert Vrij , believes that it has identified the precise ingredients of "good liars." These researchers outline the following 18 traits (pdf) that, if ever they were to coalesce in a perfect storm of a single perpetrator, would strain even seasoned interrogators’ lie-detection abilities:  

(1) manipulativeness. "Machiavellians" are pragmatic liars who aren’t fearful or anxious. They are "scheming but not stupid," explain the authors. "In conversations, they tend to dominate, but they also seem relaxed, talented and confident."

(2) acting. Good actors make good liars; receptive audiences encourage confidence.

(3) expressiveness. Animated people create favorable first impressions, making liars seductive and their expressions distracting.

(4) physical attractiveness. Fair or unfair, pretty people are judged as being more honest than unattractive people. 

(5) natural performers. These people can adapt to abrupt changes in the discourse with a convincing spontaneity.

(6) experience. Prior lying helps people manage familiar emotions, such as guilt and fear, which can “leak” behaviorally and tip off observers.

(7) confidence. Like anything else, believing in yourself is half the battle; you’ve got to believe in your ability to deceive others.

(8) emotional camouflage. Liars "mask their stark inclination to show the emotional expressions they truly feel" by feigning the opposite affect.

(9) eloquence. Eloquent speakers confound listeners with word play and buy extra time to ponder a plausible answer by giving long-winded responses.

(10) well-preparedness. This minimizes fabrication on the spot, which is vulnerable to detection. 

(11) unverifiable responding. Concealing information ("I honestly don’t remember") is preferable to a constructed lie because it cannot be disconfirmed.

(12) information frugality. Saying as little as possible in response to pointed questions makes it all the more difficult to confirm or disconfirm details.

(13) original thinking. Even meticulous liars can be thrown by the unexpected, so the ability to give original, convincing, non-scripted responses comes in handy.

(14) rapid thinking. Delays and verbal fillers ("ums" and "ahs") signal deception, so good liars are quick-witted, thinking fast on their feet.

(15) intelligence. Intelligence enables an efficient shouldering of the “cognitive load” imposed by lying, since there are many complex, simultaneously occurring demands associated with monitoring one’s own deceptiveness.

(16) good memory. Interrogators’ ears will prick at inconsistencies. A good memory allows a liar to remember details without tripping in their own fibs.

(17) truth adherence. Lies that "bend the truth" are generally more convincing, and require less cognitive effort, than those that involve fabricating an entire story.

(18) decoding. The ability to detect suspicion in the listener allows the liar to make the necessary adjustments, borrowing from strategies in the preceding skill set.  

Why give the criminals such helpful advice? The authors anticipated these concerns, clarifying that they hope this knowledge will assist interrogators, rather than those sitting on the other side of the table. Furthermore, "Undoubtedly," they write, "this [work] provides tips that liars could use to make their performance more convincing, but most characteristics we mentioned are inherent, and related to personality." 

In other words, there’s still a certain, inimitable je ne sais quoi to the great deluders. And should you find yourself so burdened with this particular type of genius, perhaps, as Mark Twain offered:

… the wise thing is to train [yourself] to lie thoughtfully,

judiciously; to lie with a good object, and not an evil one; to lie

for others' advantage, and not [y]our own; to lie healingly,

charitably, humanely, not cruelly, hurtfully, maliciously; to lie

gracefully and graciously, not awkwardly and clumsily; to lie firmly,

frankly, squarely, with head erect, not haltingly, tortuously, with

pusillanimous mien, as being ashamed of [y]our high calling.

Good advice from Samuel, as always.

Image: Niccolò Machiavelli by Santi di Tito, from Wikimedia Commons

About The Author: Want more Bering in Mind? Follow Jesse on Twitter @JesseBering, visit www.jessebering.com, or friend Jesse on Facebook. Jesse is the author of newly released book, The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny and the Meaning of Life (W. W. Norton).

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The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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