People lie on a daily basis. Despite this, most lies remain undetected. Why? Research suggests two main reasons. The first is that people simply are too gullible: We all tend to believe than disbelieve information.  The second is that people don’t understand how liars behave. So how can we spot when others are lying?

Making people less trusting and extensive training programs both have limitations. There may be an alternate, and easy, way to improve spotting a liar.  Our research suggests that instead of asking yourself ‘Is this person lying?’ you should ask yourself ‘What emotions is this person really feeling?’ Below, we explain how and why.

A key factor to understanding our method of lie detection is realizing that lies often involve concealing our  feelings.  In particular, when we lie, we often are trying to hide our real emotions.  We tell other people that we are sorry for our behavior when we are not. We say that we are disappointed we missed their call when we are not.  We pretend that we are happy to do something when really we are not. In other words, we lie about all sort of things, but lies often involve misrepresenting how we feel.

Because lies often involve faking emotions, focusing on emotions may help us detect lies. Instead of asking yourself ‘is this person lying?’, ask yourself “what emotion is this person really feeling?”

We examined our theory in two studies.  We tested whether the way people assess deception (directly by asking whether someone lied, and indirectly by asking what emotion the person experienced) influences their ability to detect deception. In both studies, participants watched videos of individuals who were lying or telling the truth about their emotions. After each video, participants were asked “to what extent do you think this person is lying?,” and they were asked to rate the extent to which the person on the video was experiencing specific emotions.

The results of both studies showed that participants were poor at detecting deception when asked directly whether the person was lying. In fact, lying individuals were even considered more truthful than truth-telling individuals! So not only were the participants bad at detecting lies, they even seem to “convict” the wrong person.

Interestingly, and in agreement with our predictions, participants were far better when they were simply asked about the emotions the other person had experienced. Specifically, participants correctly ascribed more negative emotions to those individuals who truly felt negative as compared to those who faked feeling negative. Participants weren’t as able to detect who was faking positive emotions.

We explain our findings as follows: liars make errors in their facial expressions when lying about negative emotions. These errors are picked up only when observers focus on these emotional cues. If you ask yourself “is this person lying,” you are likely to get the wrong answer.  If you ask yourself “is this person feeling the emotion their facial expressions and words imply they should be feeling,” you are more likely to detect the lie. In particular if the lie involves faking negative emotions (such as “I am so sorry I missed your call!”)

Our results imply that if you would like to be better at detecting emotional deception, you should ask yourself which emotions you think the other person experiences. If the person is faking feeling bad, you’ll be better able to figure it out!

For Further Reading:

Stel, M. & Van Dijk, E. (2018). When do we see that others misrepresent how they feel? Detecting deception from emotional faces with direct and indirect measures. Social Influence, 137-149

DePaulo, B. M., Kashy, D. A., Kirkendol, S. E., Wyer, M. M., & Epstein, J. A. (1996). Lying in everyday life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 979-995.

Porter, S., & ten Brinke, L. (2008). Reading between the lies: Identifying concealed and falsified emotions in universal facial expressions. Psychological Science, 19, 508–514.

Street, C. N. H., & Vadillo M. A. (2016). Can the unconscious boost lie-detection accuracy? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 25, 246-250.



Mariëlle Stel is an associate professor at Twente University, The Netherlands. Her research focuses on (non)verbal communication.  Eric van Dijk is a professor at Leiden University, The Netherlands. His research concentrates on the understanding of economic and social decision making.