When It Comes to Spotting a Lie, Maybe Trust Your Gut Over Your Brain

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You probably know the conventional wisdom on how to tell when someone’s lying. Watch the eyes: Are they looking directly into yours, or are they shifty?. Listen to their voice: Are they talking faster than usual? Tripping over their words? Pay attention to fidgeting, to seeming memory lapses, to logical inconsistencies.

Or you can forget about all those tricks and just go with your gut — which, as Lila MacLellan recently wrote in Quartz, may be more accurate than any external signs you might otherwise use. “Several experiments have demonstrated that our gut instincts seem to be better than our reasoning mind at discerning truth-tellers from liars,” she wrote.

In one 2009 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, for example, researchers asked participants to watch videos of inmates making confession statements and guess which of the confessions were true. Some of the volunteers paid full attention, while others completed a separate memory task as they watched; those in the second group, who couldn’t devote their full mental resources to sniffing out the lies, nevertheless did better than those in the first, who were asked to write an explanation outlining their reasoning for each choice.

Another study, published in 2014 in the journal Psychological Science, had a similar result: The participants who had to make snap judgments about a person’s trustworthiness were more accurate than the ones who took their time to think things through. “These results,” the authors concluded, “provide strong evidence for the idea that although humans cannot consciously discriminate liars from truth tellers, they do have a sense, on some less-conscious level, of when someone is lying.”

As MacLelland notes, that may be because the ability to know when someone’s lying is an evolutionarily advantageous one: “Researchers believe humans learned to make up fake stories shortly after we began to use language,” she wrote; since then, our success and even survival have hinged largely on whether or not we could recognize those stories as fake. All of which is to say: Yes, most of our intuitions about the world are wrong — but this may be one case where your first, most immediate impression is something you should pay attention to.

To Spot a Lie, Maybe Trust Your Gut Over Your Brain