Feature Archive

Born to Lie?

A face can fool you. Some people are born with an honest-looking face or mannerisms that help them get away with telling lies.

By Denise Mann
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario

Once people realize that he is an expert in the art of lying, Charles F. Bond, PhD, is always a big hit at cocktail parties.

"I find that everyone seems to be fascinated by lying," Bond, a professor of psychology at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, tells WebMD. "People have a preoccupation and a fascination with the possibility that other people are lying."

This may be why an influx of studies conducted lately have looked at who lies, as well as how and why they do it. WebMD set out to see what is so compelling about stretching the truth.

First Things First

"The first question I get at cocktail parties is 'how can you tell when someone is lying?'" Bond says.

For certain, it would be a lot easier if, like Pinocchio, our noses grew with each lie or like the old adage, our pants set ablaze with each fib, but no such luck! A recent study of 75 countries found that two-thirds of those polled say shifty eyes are the hallmark of a liar.

"The general finding is that far and away, the most widespread stereotype is that liars can't look you in the eye," Bond says. "A significant minority of Muslims believe that liars look you in the eye more when lying, but the stereotype that liars don't look you in the eye swamped everything else," he tells WebMD.

Wanna Buy a Bridge?

However "there are people who are essentially psychopaths, such as con artists, and these people often make very good liars because they don't have the emotional response that other people have to lying," says Robert Galatzer-Levy, MD, a psychoanalyst in private practice in Chicago and a lecturer at the University of Chicago. He explains that when most people lie, they feel some discomfort and it will show up in their facial expressions, manners, and style.

"The psychopath liar doesn't have these responses, so it's much more difficult to pick up on cues that they are lying," he says.

According to Bond's study, the ability to detect a liar varies geographically. Americans think they can detect a lie less than half of the time and Norwegians and Swedes rate themselves even worse. Turks and Armenians, however, say they can spot a liar upwards of 70% of the time. Worldwide, people surveyed say they can detect 53% of lies.

You've Got the Look?

So what makes a face or mannerism honest ?

"Eye contact makes a person look honest," says Bond.

In addition, a person's face plays into how honest they appear. "Symmetrical faces may, in general, be seen as more honest than ones that are asymmetrical."

"All other things being equal, attractive faces are seen as more honest than unattractive faces," says Bond.

"Baby-faces are seen as more honest than mature faces. No doubt, there is a 'choir boy' look that researchers haven't yet fully documented. When they do, I bet it will include smooth complexion, wide eyes, and a large forehead (relative to the chin). These baby-face features convey an innocent look.

"I personally believe some people are born with an honest-looking face or mannerisms and have the 'choir boy' look," Bond says.

"So there are anatomical differences and traits for lying that show up early; and if you are good at lying, you find out when you are a kid because you say 'I didn't do it, Johnny did' and your mom believes you so you get reinforced for lying and get out of punishment," he explains. But, Bond explains, people who look dishonest stop lying pretty fast because nobody believes them anyway.

For example, a guest at a pretentious dinner party says he graduated from Harvard University -- when in fact he barely finished high school.

Some people are pathological liars and they are probably born that way, but most people that lie are actually made, adds Yvonne Thomas, PhD, a psychologist in Los Angeles.

For example, "sometimes they are feeling ashamed of something that they don't feel is good enough or don't feel good enough for who they are," she says. "Often people lie as a defense to make themselves feel better," she says.

"In its extreme, liars are born not made, but in terms of more social lying that we all do, it depends on circumstances," says Charles L. Raison, MD, an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral science at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. "Lying runs the spectrum from nobody tells the truth all the time to people that tell huge tales," he says.

The Whole Truth and Nothing but the Truth? Not So Fast

Honesty may not always be the best policy, Raison says.

"There are certainly times when not revealing the whole truth is more beneficial than harmful," Raison says. For example, in the world of health, it's well known that people diagnosed with terminal illness live longer with hope, he says.

So "if I come in and he or she says 'doc, I am doing the treatment and I think I am going to beat it,' it may be more if productive for me to say, 'that sounds great -- you have a great attitude!' than to [recount his/her true odds of survival]," he says.

"I do think there are times when the best interests of the other person are served by not giving all the truth," he says.

Almost everyone lies sometimes, Galatzer-Levy says. In fact, research has shown that people lie in one-fourth of their daily social interactions.

"It's usually to spare themselves or someone else humiliation such as by concocting an excuse to avoid a social occasion," he says.

"Laughing at a joke that you don't find funny is a form of lie," he says.

But "honesty is the best policy when someone else's life would be affected," Thomas says.

It may not be the best bet in certain social situations where a white lie may go over better, she says. "If a woman says: 'how do I look in this dress?' and her husband says 'it's OK' as opposed to fantastic or horrible, it spares someone's feelings," she explains.

In such cases, "neutrality is a better response than totally lying and saying it looks fabulous or telling the harsh truth like 'it makes you look fat,'" Thomas says.

I Did Not Have Sex With That Woman!

With fibbing journalists like Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair, and USA Today columnist Jack Kelley, and evasive politicians, are we a nation of liars?

"I think historically lying is really no more common now than was in the past," Galatzer-Levy says. "But we tend to forget that political leaders have lied across the centuries and journalists have made up stories for a very long time."

What has changed, he says, is that it is harder to get away with lying today. "If a fact checker wants to find out if something occurred, all they have to do is pick up the phone [while] 100 years ago, you couldn't pick up a phone," he says.

When it comes to lying, "I think there is a very wide range of moral positions in our society. Jayson Blair, for example, writes a book describing how it's the editors of The New York Times fault that he fabricated articles and I wouldn't be surprised if he believed that."

The pendulum has also swung a bit in the other way. "It used to be common for doctors to lie to patients, so kind physicians would take it on themselves to lie but current medical ethics make it clear that lying in this context is completely unacceptable," he says.

Martha Stewart Lying

After being found guilty of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and two counts of making false statements, Martha Stewart serves as an example of the price of untruths -- a potential prison term or at the very least public disgrace.

"There are some fairly severe penalties for lying," Galatzer-Levy says. "Obviously if you lie in court and get caught, you can go to prison, but more typically people pick up that the person is lying and simply don't trust him or her and this makes it very difficult to have arrangements and agreements with people."

Raison agrees: "The more one lies for any reason, the more likely one is to be regarded by the social world as not trustworthy and unreliable," he says.

"The problem is that a person keeps digging themselves a bigger hole and starts losing track of lies and they don't remember who knows what," Thomas says. Eventually it will catch up with them and the biggest consequence is that their credibility is shot," Thomas says.

Some liars even start to believe their own lies, she says.

"They are convincing themselves harder than anyone else and most people have no idea that they are using lies as a defense to stop feeling bad about themselves, so there is a need to believe the lies," she says. "It keeps them feelingly they are OK and are good enough."

The Dog Ate My Homework

"It's normal for children to lie every once in a while," Raison says. "On the other hand, if you see a pattern of embellished fantastic lying -- especially if that behavior is associated with attention deficit, being a bully, or constantly getting into trouble, it's often the beginning of a constellation of behavior and long-term traits associated with tremendous grief to the individual," he says.

Flagrant repeated lying in childhood is potential symptom of a lifelong serious problem, he says.

Published June 28, 2004.


SOURCES: Charles F. Bond, PhD, professor, psychology, Texas Christian University, Fort Worth, Texas. Robert Galatzer-Levy, psychoanalyst, private practice, Chicago; and a lecturer, University of Chicago. Charles L. Raison, MD, assistant professor, department of psychiatry and behavioral science, Emory University School of Medicine, Atlanta. Yvonne Thomas, PhD, psychologist, Los Angeles.

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Last Editorial Review: 1/31/2005 8:14:44 AM



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