Pamela Meyer: Can You Learn To Spot A Liar? We're surrounded by deception: in politics and pop culture, in the workplace and on social media. Pamela Meyer points out mannerisms and cues that can help us suss out a lie.

Can You Learn To Spot A Liar?

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz, and on the show today - ideas about why we lie and why most of us believe those lies. Can you usually tell when you're being lied to?

PAMELA MEYER: Well, this is the problem of lie spotting...

RAZ: This is Pamela Meyer. She trains people on how to spot liars.

MEYER: Shall we do a little test to see?

RAZ: Yeah.

MEYER: OK. Are you right-handed or left-handed?

RAZ: Right.

MEYER: OK. Hold your dominant hand up. It doesn't matter if you're right-handed or left-handed, anybody can do this. Hold your dominant hand up. Draw a capital Q on your forehead.

RAZ: OK. I've done it.

MEYER: OK. Did you draw the tail of the Q towards your left or your right shoulder?

RAZ: My right shoulder.

MEYER: OK. So that means you're a bad liar, the science shows that that indicates that you're a low self-monitor. High self-monitors tend to draw the capital Q so the person facing them can actually see it - with it down and towards the left. And we know that high self-monitors are better observers of other people, they're more perceptive, they're also better liars because they can perceive how others perceive them more accurately.

RAZ: So you've just confirmed that I am a bad liar because I drew the Q that way?

MEYER: Well, no. That's certainly not proof but it is an interesting way to kind of get a sense of the way you perceive others and the way you perceive the world.

RAZ: And as Pamela explained on the TED stage we are in fact born to lie.


MEYER: It starts really, really early - how early? Well babies will fake a cry, pause, wait to see who's coming and then go right back to crying.


MEYER: One-year-olds learn concealment, five-year-olds lie outright - they manipulate via flattery. Nine-year-olds - masters of the cover-up. By the time you enter college, you're going to lie to your mom in one out of every five interactions. By the time we enter this work world and we're breadwinners, we enter a world that's just cluttered with spam, fake, digital-friends, partisan media, ingenious identity thieves, world-class ponzi schemers - a deception epidemic. In short, what one author calls a post-truth society. Lying's complex but we're covertly for it in ways that our society has sanctioned for centuries and centuries and centuries. It's as old as breathing. Think Dante, Shakespeare, the Bible, news of the world. What do you do? Well there steps we can take to navigate our way through the morass. There are good liars and there are bad liars. There are no real original liars. We all make the same mistakes, we all use the same techniques. So what I'm going to do is I'm going to show you patterns of deception and then we're going to look at the hotspots and see if we can find them ourselves. We're going to start with speech.


PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: I want you to listen to me. I'm going to say this again. I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky. I never asked anybody to lie, not a single time, never. These allegations are false.

RAZ: I remember seeing that and I thought, yeah, OK, of course, convinced.

MEYER: Well he was very, very convincing. Of course Bill Clinton is one of the most convincing politicians and persuasive politicians we've ever seen in modern history. But he did demonstrate three of the great indicators of deception on the verbal side. First of all he said, did not.


CLINTON: I did not have.

MEYER: So that's what's called a non-contracted denial. Did not versus didn't, could not versus couldn't. And liars often unconsciously resort to formal rather than informal language. He also said, that woman.


CLINTON: Sexual relations with that woman.

MEYER: That's what we call distancing language. Now the other thing he did is he said...


CLINTON: Ms. Lewinsky.

MEYER: Now Bill Clinton obviously couldn't say, hey I never had sex outside my marriage in my life. So clearly he could not issue a categorical denial. But still it's a great example because, you know, the liars going to say, I did not take 20 from the drawer. The truth tellers going to say, are you kidding, I never stole anything in my life. The categorical denial tends to be associated with honesty whereas the narrowed, specific denial tends to be associated with deception.

RAZ: So we look at this clip and I wonder, I just thought because I just saw your TED talk again for, like, the seventh time or something - so, so that was a lie, it was like the third time.

MEYER: That's OK.

RAZ: I'm am not - there's going to be no lying here...

MEYER: I don't think you're lying.

RAZ: I've seen your TED talk three times.

MEYER: Cool.

RAZ: Fully once and then the other two times in segments. I don't want to give you to give you the impression that I watched it three times because that's not exactly how I watched them.

MEYER: OK. Thank you for providing that, what we call, inappropriate amount of detail.


MEYER: Lying is a cooperative act. Think about it. A lie has no power whatsoever by its mere utterance. Its power emerges when someone else agrees to believe the lie. Now not all lies are harmful sometimes we're willing participants in deception for the sake of social dignity. We say, nice song, you don't look fat in that, no. Or we say, you know, I just fished that email out of my spam folder, I'm so sorry.

RAZ: So, I mean, in situations like that we actually want to be lied to?

MEYER: Yes. I think we have a kind of ambivalent relationship with the truth.

RAZ: Yeah.

MEYER: So for example let's say you really wished you had a lot more money - you're much more likely to be susceptible to the person who's trying to essentially sell you a financial scam. Or let's say you wished you were much better looking - you're going to be much more susceptible to the person who says, you know, you look gorgeous today. So for example when we do training sometimes we'll put people in pairs and we'll say, tell the biggest lie you can think of to the person across from you. Often times, what emerges is this absolutely fascinating conversation between two people because the biggest lie that you can think of is very often in that area of striving where you wish you could be something that you're actually not.


MEYER: Lying is an attempt to bridge that gap, to connect our wishes and our fantasies about who we wish we were, how we wish we could be, with what we're really like. And boy are we willing to fill in those gaps in our lives with lies. On a given day, studies show that you may be lied to anywhere from 10 to 200 times. Now granted many of those are white lies. But in another study it showed that strangers lied three times within the first 10 minutes of meeting each other. We lie more to strangers than we lie to co-workers. Extroverts lie more than introverts. Men lie eight times more about themselves than they do other people. Women lie more to protect other people.

RAZ: Have you ever been convinced that somebody was lying but then found out later, that then the evidence really showed, that the person was in fact telling the truth? Like, did that ever happen to you?

MEYER: It hasn't happened to me but it happens to a lot of people. And it's a very, very important question because it's not a parlor trick. And often times people take lie spotting techniques and they think that they've learned them instantly and they go out and they wrongly accuse people and that's a very serious thing to do. A real process of figuring out if somebody is lying involves preparing, having a conversation, observing them carefully, going back, observing them again, there's so many things that you can miss.


MEYER: Lie spotters rely on human tools. They know, as someone once said, character's who you are in the dark. And what's kind of interesting is that today we have so little darkness. Our world is lit up 24 hours a day, it's transparent. So one challenge we have is to remember - over sharing, that's not honesty. Our manic tweeting and texting can blind us to the fact that the subtleties of human decency, character, integrity - that's still what matters. That's always what's going to matter. So in this much noise of your world it might make sense for us to be just a little bit more explicit about our moral code, just a little bit more explicit - because you signal to everyone around you. You say, hey my world, our world, it's going to be an honest one. My world is going to be one where truth is strengthened and falsities is recognized and marginalized. And when you do that, the ground around you starts to shift just a little bit and that's the truth. Thank you.


RAZ: Pamela Meyer, lie spotter. Check out her entire TED Talk at So what do you think about my hair?

MEYER: Your hair is great, it looks fabulous today. I swear to God on my mother's grave. It looks great. That's what we would call a religious reference combined with over emphasizing one's truthfulness.

RAZ: So you're lying?

MEYER: I'm lying.


MEYER: No. Your hair really does look good. It does look good.

RAZ: Thanks.

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