How to spot a liar

The Pinocchio effect: How to spot a liar

Peter Harris|

Working relationships should be built on trust, but sometimes people will tell lies in order to get what they want. When you’re taking on a new job – especially if you’re employed and leaving your current position for a new and ostensibly better one – you want to know that everything you’ve been told about the company and your role are true. The same goes for employers hiring new staff – they need to be assured that candidates are up front about their abilities and their shortcomings.

The working hours take up so much of our time and play such an important part of lives and identities that situations which start off with deception and disappointment usually end in disaster.

Employers trying to recruit top talent may highlight the benefits of the job while glossing over the extreme micro-managing director who’s going to make your life a living hell or failing to mention the incredibly high turnover rate caused by a toxic workplace culture. And some candidates in an attempt to beat out the competition of a job will outright lie about their credentials or accomplishments.

So how can you know for sure that you’re getting the straight goods?

Well, there’s the Pinocchio effect. Researchers have found that when you lie, your nose actually heats up. Using thermographic cameras, psychiatrists at the University of Granada in Spain were able to detect increased temperatures in the noses and the regions around the eyes of people who were telling lies. However, this may not be very practical. You generally won’t have a thermographic camera handy or be able to ask someone if you can place your hand over their nose before asking them a question in order to detect the veracity of their answer.

However there are common body language cues that often indicate that a person is not telling the truth. Researchers at Harvard University have also found that there are also linguistic clues in the way people answer questions that can be warning signs of dishonesty.

Body language giveaways

  • Watch for the facial touching. People who are uncomfortable being dishonest tend to cover their mouth or touch their nose when they tell a lie. This could be an attempt to hide micro facial expressions or perhaps due to the sudden heat rush discovered by the Spanish study.


  • Watch what they do with their eyes. While breaking eye contact in itself is not a clear indicator of lying – people often look away in order to concentrate or remember details – if there is a distinct change in a person’s eye-movements, rapid blinking, looking up or down for long periods while speaking it can indicate dishonesty. Also if they suddenly become hyper-focussed on staring you in the eye, it could be an attempt to counter-act the looking away factor and convince you of the lie.


  • People who are lying often fidget more than those who are giving straight answers. Fidgeting is usually caused by discomfort or nervousness – both of which are symptoms of someone worried that they’ll be caught out for being dishonest. (Keep this in mind in job interviews. If you’re nervous, remember to keep your fidgeting in check. Worse than simply implying a lack of confidence – it could cause your interviewer to distrust your answers.)


Linguistic indicators of dishonesty

The Harvard study, Evidence for the Pinocchio Effect, tested people involved in business negotiations where trust was required and money was on the line. You can access the full details of the experiment here, but these were interesting findings:

  • People who are lying tend to use a lot more words than people who are telling the truth, probably because they feel the need to convince the listener of what they’re saying, rather than just tell them something. Researchers also called this the Pinocchio Effect – as similar to Pinocchio’s nose – the length of the sentence grew along with the lie.


  • People who told lies of omission – leaving out relevant information rather than outright lying – actually went the other way, using even shorter sentences and fewer words than people telling the truth.


  • People who told outright lies were believed more often than people who attempted to hide the truth through not talking about it. (So if you really need to deceive, you’re more likely to get away with making something up than with attempting to avoid the subject.)


  • Liars swear more often than people who are telling the truth. (Note – in the job interview scenario – don’t swear either way, whether or not you’re lying.)


  • Liars used far more third-person pronouns (“him, her, it, one, they, their” rather than “I”) than people who were telling the truth – or lying by omission. Similarly they also used much more complex sentence structures. Researchers interpret this as an attempt to separate themselves from the dishonesty at the heart of what they’re saying.


Finally, researchers compared cases where subjects conducted this same negotiation experiment by email exchange versus those who interacted in person. It turned out that liars are found out much more often in print than face-to-face. In an email exchange, the reader has the chance to go over the information more than once and at their own pace – and there are fewer distractions than when listening to a live person speak.

Peter Harris

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Category: Life At Work
  • Monika

    well what if you have allergies and you play with your nose, I fidget due to pain in my knees and I don’t like to look in someone’s eyes as I have travelled a lot and used to always look in someone’s eyes and found out what this means when you are a woman in a mans world in a country other than Canada, so I look up a lot or to the side. So I don’t really like the advise in this article.

    • Margottin

      Yes, Canada is always an exception for negativities, promised land.

  • maryam


  • maryam


  • D.

    The number 1 liars are so-called “employment-councellors and advisers”. Not only do they not have a clue about real situation on the job-market and particulars of the job, they give “advice” about, but they are also parasites as well: they produce nothing of value but get paid very high salaries for doing practically nothing. They are the ones, job-seekers must avoid.The most common “trick” of these “professionals” to watch: when one helps you with writing your resume and you go to another one, the next one tells you, that your resume is no good and must be re-written.

    • disqus_UF5mY9tbNE

      Its true, everytime I would talk to someone, at an employment agency or whatever, they all said I needed to make changes to my resume. I had one guy tell me that women should NOT wear high heels to an interview…what the? really? of course we should! but they should be professional and not slutty. Another told me that I needed to remove my piercing (just one, plain hoop in the cartlidge of my ear). Any advice is good to get when searching, but we need to each take the advice and filter out the stuff that is actually good, and ignore the BS

  • Gale Franey

    Sounds like a load of nonsense to me. Each person reacts differently, according to their upbringing, culture, shyness, nervousness, and numerous other factors. This article will do little to assist people in their search for employment or to assist employers to screen candidates for job openings.

  • Tracy Rothwell

    BS…I break eye contact and look up when I tell a joke as well. I have a hard time remembering how it goes so I don’t mess up the punch line. Does that mean I’m lying then as well? I do the same thing when I use Mathematical functions in my head or I’m trying to explain something. I visually go through my mental rolodex to think before I speak. So this is an unfair assumption. Not everyone has to lie to get ahead of the game. It’s just become that there are less honest folks like myself than there are liars and cheats.

    • Darcy Hudjik

      I also find much of this body language stuff to be inaccurate to a point. I find my gut instinct to be a far more accurate indicator.
      I remember one interview I that went to a few years ago (cleaning for a large apartment block), I had this gut feeling that the woman wasn’t being totally upfront about some element of the job (a lie of omission); yet I had none of this negative body language to back it up. Sure enough,the lady that was training me let me know after about four or five days, that the cleaning and maintenance people were expected to work up to 14 days in a row with no days off during the end and beginning of the month, because management was too cheap to hire an extra couple of people.

  • xt

    Too bad that everything described also falls under the category of introvert body language.

  • Trizi

    If it were as simplistic as this, lie detection tests wouldn’t exist. Liars check out all this outdated as well as current body language advice and modify their behavior accordingly. The best way to sort out a person’s story is to validate via their references. Ask questions in a broad variety of areas and listen for that confident tone in the reference’s answer.