Good Liars

By Vrij, Aldert; Granhag, Pär Anders et al. | Journal of Psychiatry & Law, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Good Liars


Vrij, Aldert, Granhag, Pär Anders, Mann, Samantha, Journal of Psychiatry & Law


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 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.

KEY WORDS: Lie detection, deception research.

Deception research has focused on a wide range of issues, including why people lie, the topics they lie about, how often they lie, whether liars differentiate from truth tellers in terms of speech content, nonverbal behaviour and physiological cues, and how good people are at detecting liars (Vrij, 2008). Widely ignored is the straightforward and relevant question: What constitutes a good liar? Insight into this question benefits law enforcement personnel in two ways. First, it provides insight into who would be suitable for undercover operations. Second, it may help lie detectors. 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 (Vrij, 2004a, 2004b; 2008).

This article addresses the issue of what characterizes a good liar. Due to the paucity of research in this area, we will not present many empirical findings. Instead, we will discuss criteria that we think will suit a good liar, and we base these criteria on four sources of information. The first of these is theories of deception, giving insight into what may hinder liars and what they need to overcome in order to be successful. The second is people's views on how liars respond, explaining what reactions liars need to avoid. Third, impression formation theory provides insight into what type of people naturally come across as likeable, trustworthy, and honest. Finally, fourth is persuasion theory which describes what liars could do in order to convince others. Taking these four areas into account, we will then discuss eighteen characteristics that we think constitute a good liar. The limited amount of research addressing what strategies liars actually use will be discussed in the final section of this article.

Deception theory

There are several theoretical perspectives, each suggesting reasons why liars may show signs of deceit, and they all have one important feature in common: The mere fact that people lie will not affect their behavior, speech content, or physiological responses. However, sometimes liars may show different responses to truth tellers.

Zuckerman, DePaulo, & Rosenthal's (1981) multiple factor model

According to Zuckerman, Depaulo, and Rosenthal (1981) the differences in responses are the result of liars experiencing an increase in emotions or cognitive load, or attempting to control their behavior. Each of these aspects may influence a liar's response.

Telling a lie is most commonly associated with two different emotions: Guilt and fear (Ekman, 1985/2001). Liars might feel guilty because they are lying or might be afraid of not being believed. Liars do not always experience these emotions. In fact, research has indicated that they do not feel any of these emotions in the majority of lies they tell in daily life (DePaulo, Kashy, Kirkendol, Wyer, & Epstein, 1996). However, emotions are likely to be felt in situations where the stakes (i.e., positive consequences of getting away with the lie and negative consequences of getting caught) are high. In such circumstances, the strength of the emotions depends on the personality of the liar and on the circumstances under which the lie takes place (Ekman, 1985/2001; Ekman & Frank, 1993). …

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