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Bering in Mind


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18 Attributes of Highly Effective Liars

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


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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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  1. 1. cow_duo 5:31 pm 07/7/2011

    I am not trying to be snarky, but how is this list different than the list for successful politicians?

    Link to this
  2. 2. Arrive2.net 6:43 pm 07/7/2011

    I have noticed that almost anything you do could be taken as an indication of lying by people who don’t want to believe you. If you speak cautiously (trying to be sure that everything you have said is 100% accurate) that could be taken as an indication you are lying, but if you are confident and glib (as suggested in the article) that could be taken as an indicator of lying. Skillful liars try to mimic honesty, as the article suggests. Still, forewarned is forearmed, studying research like this could help. I would trust someone who trusts the research more than someone who "trusts their gut", because trusting their gut is often just a code for believing what they want to believe.

    Bart Schuster
    Arrive2.net
    Twitter.com/arrive2_net

    Link to this
  3. 3. sjd0218 8:22 pm 07/7/2011

    I would add another attribute:
    "No man should tell a lie unless he is shrewd enough to recognize the time for renouncing it, if and when it comes, and knows how to renounce it gracefully."
    -Rex Stout (Nero Wolfe)

    And that is where the politicians are so foolishly hampered.

    Link to this
  4. 4. Eltoca21 3:36 pm 07/8/2011

    You forgot "religious affiliation" as god fearing people are always honest truthful trustworthy etc…

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  5. 5. weedle 6:57 pm 07/8/2011

    I wouldn’t include that one, if only because it’s rather debatable. There are plenty of reasons to be honest.
    On topic, those look like qualities anyone would want. Not that we’d want to be liars as such, but it would help to be just that little bit more persuasive…

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  6. 6. zstansfi 2:43 pm 07/10/2011

    I’m not certain, but I suspect that was meant as a sarcastic comment.

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  7. 7. AndiKuszewski 4:25 pm 07/11/2011

    I got chills when reading this list, because i know people intimately who fit that profile. Incidentally, I am extremely good at not flinching a bit when speaking to someone when I know they are lying. It’s like a battle of wills to see who slips up first. Sociopaths occasionally get past me, but only for a short time. Everyone slips up eventually, especially when they think they are infallible and undetectable.

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  8. 8. jcvillar 11:44 pm 07/12/2011

    The problem here is: How do we know the writers aren’t lying? They seem intelligent and confident, their research is unverifyable, etc.

    They say their research is to help law enforcement. How Orwellian! Just what we need, help government detect lying. Too bad this paper wasn’t around for the Nazi occupation of their beloved Holland back in May of ’40, eh? All of our lives would be so much better now and Anne Frank’s diary would have been a much shorter read.

    I have practiced law for over twenty years and I can count the number of "Gov’s" who tell the truth on one hand. As we say in the lawyer business, "It’s easy to detect if a police officer is perjuring himself on the witness stand. Simply look closely and carefully at his face and verify that his lips are moving."

    You get points for sharing this information with the public. Someday it (again) may be the only patheticly weak defense they and you have.

    Link to this
  9. 9. gmperkins 4:20 am 07/14/2011

    => I think they forgot self-deception.

    To really lie effectively, you have to take the lie and make it your own. I guess that is somewhat part of well-preparedness but I consider it a distinct ability.

    => Mimicry. The ability to mimic the gestures and vocal tones of those you are trying to convince.

    Link to this
  10. 10. CitizenWhy 3:53 pm 07/14/2011

    It doesn’t differ. But some of them do not lie all the time. And many follow the advice of Mark Twain on lying as cited in this article. They are not all bad.

    Link to this
  11. 11. EyesWideOpen 4:23 pm 07/14/2011

    Evaluating information gleaned over the internet by these standards would lead one to presume it’s a medium that cannot be trusted.

    Link to this
  12. 12. Pazuzu 10:00 pm 07/14/2011

    It isn’t. Many of them aren’t even good liars.

    Link to this
  13. 13. Laird Wilcox 10:57 pm 07/14/2011

    This list isn’t much help for anything. Any self-confident person with social skills could fill this bill to some extent. If you were trying to find liars in a crowd it would do you no good to have this list in front of you. Moreover, if someone took this list seriously as if it had actual diagnostic significance they would wind up with lots of false positives. I don’t think it was compiled on the basis of any kind of serious study, only the intuitions and "common sense" of the compiler. What this is called, by the way, is a stereotype.

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  14. 14. desnaz 11:02 pm 07/14/2011

    And then there are the rare and talented subset of liars who are described as ‘pathological’ (complulsive, habitual) — I have had the ‘pleasure’ (and pain!) of being treated to performances by two such over my 5 decade+ lifetime… any comments on these, Jesse?

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  15. 15. c.harvey 11:23 pm 07/14/2011

    "I don’t think it was compiled on the basis of any kind of serious study, only the intuitions and "common sense" of the compiler."

    Actually that’s where you’re wrong. If you read the original pdf article (it’s free by the way and not behind a pay wall) linked in this piece it’s clear that this list is compiled on the basis of many studies not just whatever the researchers felt like adding. Why so cynical?

    Link to this
  16. 16. briseboy 1:54 am 07/15/2011

    Well, once I knew slightly an old actress. This was some time ago, as she was late silent and 30s performer.
    I mentioned Reagan to her, and she responded with "That slimy social climber!" and was able to list most of these attributes in her estimation of him.
    She emphatically did NOT claim Number 15.
    We agreed that he was a puppet in his presidency.
    This is a common trait of the narcissistic and egotistic actor: to fall for cheap flattery and become thrall to those who can pretend to be in awe of them, leaving them open to manipulation: mouthing others’ thoughts

    This is also how GW was controlled by others more Machiavellianically intelligent than he.

    Link to this
  17. 17. Laird Wilcox 2:10 am 07/15/2011

    I understand the studies and I’ve read (and even printed out) the PDF but the traits suggested by most of the studies are so general that they’re simply not reliable for determining who is lying and who isn’t. The reasoning behind them is often transparently evident but their relevance is vague. If someone had 80% of the traits listed, they could still be telling the truth. If they had 20% of them they could still be lying. Moreover, most of these findings are simply reasonable assumptions, as in "Study shows that proficient runners have good feet."

    It was an interesting article and I think it does represent the general trend of research. I’ve read the books by Paul Eckman and am familiar with other research in this area from a law enforcement perspective. There are some incredible assumptions floating around what signifies deception and what doesn’t and these have caused no end of problems in that profession ranging from false trails, missed leads to irresponsible prosecutions. There simply is no way to know whether someone is lying or not absent solid evidence.

    What comes to mind in reading the article is the fundamental attribution error where too much attention is paid to observed behavior, assumed temperament or other personal traits but not enough to the circumstances or situational explanations that are available. Simply because someone has the traits suggested does not mean they are lying, are going to lie or have any reliable predisposition to lie. If you ever find anyone like this and you think, "Aha! This person is a liar," you are jumping to a conclusion that may have serious consequences for someone. These are called prejudices.

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  18. 18. Moneta 12:50 pm 07/15/2011

    Amazing! All the attributes of one Barry Soetoro – and in a similar position of power over the peasantry.

    Link to this
  19. 19. fa 8:36 pm 07/15/2011

    There is some truth in the saying “if you’re an honest person then you can easily spot it when someone is lying.”

    Link to this
  20. 20. Fornasaro 8:58 pm 07/17/2011

    Truly, that was the best description of politicians ever! Especially now with this whole GOP stupidity about the debt ceiling.

    Link to this
  21. 21. royniles 3:04 pm 07/18/2011

    All intelligent people have the same attributes as good liars. Most however lie for good reasons -those that their cultures find acceptable.
    Those who lie for culturally harmful purposes are the ones to worry about. As to politicians, they are often psychopathic liars as well, an anomalous condition apparently not dealt with in this pseudo psychological survey.

    Link to this
  22. 22. msd125 2:00 pm 07/25/2011

    Interesting discussion, I think we should all read and re-read Sissela Bok’s excellent discourses on lying and secrets in her two eponymously named books:

    "Lying Moral Choice in Public and Private Life"
    and her companion book

    "Secrets: On the Ethics of Concealment and Revelation"

    and then see if lying and/or keeping secrets is any more or less morally justifiable or necessary or important today than in years past?

    Simeon Berman,MD
    msd125

    Link to this
  23. 23. ecstatist 4:06 am 09/3/2011

    (Almost?) All of us live lies. Cosmetics, shaving, teeth straightening, greetings with faked sincerity, almost all spectated dancing, promised sexual fidelity (the degree of which is in actuality defined by our options) , deodorants, high heels, hair dye…..
    Deceptive use of words with vague or wide meanings. Advertisers are the greatest and deftest users of this technique and then close behind come the military.

    Link to this
  24. 24. JordanDH 9:20 am 09/25/2011

    I can’t help but feel that this misrepresents Machiavelli’s true political ideology.

    Link to this
  25. 25. amegeiger 12:32 am 04/15/2013

    I’m a compulsive liar. I don’t like lying, I really don’t, but I know I’m good at it and I lie whenever I feel even slightly threatened by a question. If I feel like someone’s accusing me of something, I immediately lie. Reading through this list, uh noticed the only things I’m not good at are well-preparedness (most of the time I lie on the spot. If I’m expecting to have to lie, however, or cover for a lie I’ve already told, I will be prepared with a story and answers to questions the interrogator might have.), unverifiable responding, and truth adherence. I always try for a lie that is usually to bold or too contrary to what the interrogator has already heard.

    Link to this
  26. 26. amegeiger 12:33 am 04/15/2013

    *I, not “uh”

    Link to this

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