The Language of Liars
The average person tells 20 to 25 lies per day. Pretty unbelievable, right? That’s because it’s not true. The number’s more like one or two. Sorry, I needed to get mine in before midnight, or else face mediocrity.
In any case, that’s still regular practice. Despite this, we’re not very good at telling when someone else is lying — our accuracy is, generally speaking, only marginally better than chance. It’s no wonder, then, that we put our faith in lie-detection technology, even if it is less than perfect. The polygraph test may be good enough for Maury Povich, but even its proponents admit its accuracy is around 90% (and critics say it’s considerably less). Yet it doesn’t have much in the way of competition, unless you count truth serums, or one 1920s contraption designed to spook the subject into yelling out a confession.
Polygraph tests analyse heart rate, perspiration, and breathing, while so-called “body language experts” on YouTube pore over their targets’ grimaces and smirks for signs of deception. But what if we took liars at their words? After all, linguistics has proven itself a useful tool for professional sleuths of all kinds. Corpus analysis — the systematic study of repeating patterns in large volumes of text—is the driving force behind authorship attribution, for example, which helps us to identify the true source of anonymous historical documents. And the use of similar methods to uncover the telltales of tall tales seems promising.
To be sure, there is a lot we can intuit about the way that liars talk. The most inept of them hesitate, stammer, and raise their vocal pitch. But knowing this can only get us so far, since it can lead to false positives — we appear to say um more often when speaking to someone of the opposite sex — and since the most obvious of these traps can be consciously avoided, if you’re well-practised enough. There’s a scene in Better Call Saul where Lalo Salamanca asks the titular shady lawyer to tell the same story three times, an obvious intimidation tactic to make him admit he’s lying. Instead, Saul fulfills the request, measuredly, fluently, each time repackaging the account with new, but not conflicting, details for that extra flourish of realism. We’d almost be inclined to believe him if we hadn’t seen for ourselves what had really gone down.
But perhaps even Saul Goodman couldn’t tell you what quantitative research has revealed about the lesser-known hallmarks of deceptive language. Aldert Vrij, in his book Detecting Lies and Deceit, writes that the word not seems to be a favourite among fibbers — as he points out, Richard Nixon’s famous line was not “I am an honest man.” This might be because negative statements sometimes equate to weasel words (perhaps Nixon wouldn’t classify himself as a crook, more of a fraudster), but Vrij also suggests that negative statements mirror the unpleasant emotions we experience when we lie, like guilt and fear. It could be for this reason, too, that liars’ speech tends to feature more complaints. (As a side note, the Better Call Saul writers get this spot on — Saul mentions his car that “crapped out”, and even throws in a line about the “heavy, heavy bags” that he had to carry.)
Multiple studies have shown that liars make fewer references to themselves than truth-tellers, perhaps as a subconscious tactic to avoid taking ownership of their claims. In particular, generous use of third-person pronouns (like he, she, and they) is a good giveaway, as well as more general terms like everybody and nobody. Related to this is liars’ penchant for vague or abstract language, as explained in The Encyclopedia of Deception: ask the killer what they were doing at the time of the murder and they’re more likely to tell you they were “watching TV at home” than “watching the season five boxset of M*A*S*H in the rumpus room.”
Another cue to watch out for, both in speech and writing, is linguistic complexity. A study by Judee Burgoon and colleagues found that liars tend to talk and write at a slightly lower grade level than truth tellers, using less diverse vocabulary and fewer big words. This makes sense — lying takes more cognitive effort than telling the truth, as it involves creating a narrative from scratch rather than drawing from lived experience; hence eloquence moves down a few spots on the deceiver’s list of priorities. In spoken language, there’s a noticeable difference in the average number of conjunctions (and, but, etc.) used by liars and truth tellers, with the latter group using considerably more.
The trouble is this: the more we learn about the way liars talk, the better we lie.
Do liars do more talking? It’s hard to form a theoretical answer to this question. On one hand, they may prefer to keep their statements brief to avoid incriminating themselves; on the other hand, they might be inclined to ramble out of nervousness or because of the added incentive to be persuasive. Sadly, the data is fairly inconclusive on this point. It seems that the length of a liar’s answer depends on the situation—for instance, if their dishonesty is non-verifiable (e.g. if their lie is about a personal opinion), they’re more likely to yammer on. The mode of communication used may also have a part to play. Further research by Burgoon and others indicates that being given ample time to contemplate, reread, and edit an untruthful statement leads to longer messages. So the next time you’re trying to get an obvious liar to talk themselves into a corner, ask them to submit a detailed report to you via e-mail.
In fact, many studies conclude that distinguishing fact from fiction is highly contingent on the context. Whether they’re lying or being sincere, the language a person uses when writing an affidavit is never going to have much in common with the language they use when talking about how much they enjoyed Mank. Nonetheless, research can become more refined, technology more powerful. The only trouble is this: the more we learn about the way liars talk, the better we lie. If it becomes widely acknowledged that negativity is a sure sign of deception, then judges are going to be hearing a lot more alibis sprinkled with references to how nice the weather was on the day the crime took place. No matter: if all else fails, we’ll always have wine.