What Makes a Good Liar?

The abstract from this study (PDF):

A neglected area in deception research is what constitutes a good liar. On the basis of deception theory, people’s views about how liars respond, impression formation theory, and persuasion theory, we describe eighteen attributes which in our view are all present in a good liar. Insight into these characteristics will help law enforcement personnel in two ways: It provides insight into who would be suitable for undercover operations, and it may help lie detectors, because one reason why people make errors in lie detection is that they do not take the
full complexity of deception into account and seem to have limited knowledge about what is actually going on in a liar’s mind.

The authors of this study found 18 attributes/traits of good (or excellent) liars. Some of these may be obvious, but others are surprising:

(1) manipulativeness. “for manipulators, people high in Machiavellianism or social adroitness, lying is a normal and acceptable way of achieving their goals. Manipulators frequently tell lies, tend to persist in lying when challenged to tell the truth, don’t feel uncomfortable when lying, and don’t feel guilty when lying. In addition, they don’t find lying cognitively too complicated, view others cynically, show little concern for conventional morality, and openly admit that they will lie, cheat, and manipulate others to get what they want…manipulators are scheming but not stupid. They do not exploit others when their victims might retaliate, and do not cheat when they are likely to get caught. 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.


(via Scientific American and Farnam Street Blog)

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