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Lie to me: Can we tell when we’re being lied to?

ByDean Adams

Dec 3, 2018

Do you think you are a good judge of when you are being lied to? As it turns out, if your answer is yes, you are most likely lying to yourself. Cognitive researchers at the University of Edinburgh published a study in October which indicates that we are good at identifying mannerisms which we commonly associate with lying – shifting glances, hesitations in speech and so on – however, these mannerisms are actually more common when people are telling the truth than when they are lying.

To quote from the study published in the Journal of Cognition, “we have strong preconceptions about the behaviour associated with lying, which we act on almost instinctively when listening to others. However, we don’t necessarily produce these cues when we’re lying, perhaps because we try to suppress them.” Could this new study suggest that human beings are actually outsmarting evolution? To understand how this is possible, we need to take a closer look at two things: first, how we evolved to lie in the first place; and second, how evolution works in general.


When researching lying, one word that comes up over and over is “cooperation.” Essentially, human beings lie because they are so good at cooperating. This may not seem like the case when looking at the current global political climate, yet human beings are exceptional cooperators. With cooperation comes an increased reliance on trust. We tend to believe those we are communicating with are telling the truth. However, since we are smart creatures, we realise that we can capitalise on this presupposition, and when we lie, we are simply taking advantage of the fact that the other party believes us to be telling the truth.


Now let’s take a look at evolution. We have a common idea of evolution as the process that created human beings, as though we are the finished product of some grand evolutionary process. This is fundamentally incorrect. We are right in the middle of our evolution, which is an ongoing process that has no final destination. All living organisms around us are in the midst of an evolutionary process. The process works quite simply, in that organisms exhibit a wide variety of traits, and over time those traits which provide an evolutionary advantage are “selected” by evolution. This essentially means that traits which give you a greater opportunity to survive long enough to reproduce will appear more frequently in subsequent generations, and eventually become the norm. 

The Study

With that background information, we can now revisit the study and take a closer look at what it tells us. Humans have evolved to cooperate, then learned to take advantage of this aspect of evolution. What this study now suggests is that we have taken this learning one step further. Over time, research allowed us to understand how to identify a typical lie. Once we could identify the telltale signs of a lie, we were able to modify our behaviour accordingly when telling a lie ourselves. Think of the last time you told a lie, chances are you intentionally made sure to maintain eye contact, avoid fidgeting, and speak clearly. This is because we know what to look for in a lie, so we know what to avoid when telling a lie. 

Although we do not have the research to prove it, it would be reasonable to assume that this same study conducted in 1918, or even 1968 would have yielded completely different results. We have learned so much about human behaviour in the past 50-100 years that our cultural learning curve has grown incredibly steep. Human beings are learning machines, and it is logical to think that once the results of this study become common knowledge, we will learn how to spot the new lying signs and be able to identify those rapidly as well.

The study also limits its scope specifically to lying, but it will be interesting to see if the cognitive field creates similar studies to observe other aspects of human behaviour. It would be logical to assume that humans would adopt other behaviours accordingly if provided with the proper scientific research. As science continues to advance at an ever-increasingly rapid rate, will psychology move too quickly for evolution? Is it possible to learn ways to outsmart our psychology to the extent that we undermine our own pre-established propensity to cooperate? Or will the ability to lie effectively and the ability to detect effective lies continue to bounce back and forth in pursuit of one another indefinitely? Only time and research will tell. 


Image: Internet Archive Book Images via Flickr

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