Pamela Meyer is the author of “Liespotting: Proven Techniques to Detect Deception.”

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Don’t look now, but the person reading this over your shoulder is a liar. So is the barista who just served you coffee. So are you. We’re all liars.

In fact, studies have shown that we’re regularly told anywhere from 10 to 200 lies each day—up to 12 an hour. From white lies to whoppers, more than three-quarters of these go undetected.

Nor is our fibbing a fresh phenomenon. “The fraud of men was ever so,” wrote Shakespeare, illuminating a human history filled with everything from prehistoric hunters disguising themselves in reindeer skins, to the biblical Cain’s duplicitous denial that he knows his murdered brother Abel’s whereabouts—“Am I my brother’s keeper?”

If humans have been lying for as long as there have been humans, why should anyone care now?

The truth—if I may gingerly use that term—is that our deceit may be old, but our tools are new. Modern communications and social networking have unleashed tremendous gains across the world, but they have also progressively diminished personal contact with our friends (the real ones, not those of the Facebook variety), family, coworkers, and acquaintances. Absent the face-to-face interaction essential to building trust and spotting lies, these technologies have unintentionally ushered in a new era of deception, one in which greater distance begets greater dishonesty, which begets greater damage to the fabric of our society.

The Corporate Take

According to one study, 44% of resumes contain exaggerations or fabrications, including the CVs of one in four C-level executives While we often assume people slightly embellish their employment histories, some of the falsifications I’ve seen strain the bounds of credulity, such as listing military service from before the applicant’s date of birth, taking credit for work actually performed by the interviewer, or pretending to be a member of the Kennedy family.

It would be funny if falsehoods didn’t exact real costs.

According to the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, in 2010 occupational fraud caused a median loss of $160,000 and lasted for 18 months before detection. More than half the offenders had a college or postgraduate degree, and a full 86% had never been charged with or convicted of a prior offense. The perpetrators rarely fit the profile we expect, though one in five employees nonetheless says they’re aware of fraud in their workplace.

Small businesses—which often lack internal controls, and for whom even small losses can be devastating—represent nearly a third of all reported fraud cases.

In total, deception costs American businesses more than an estimated $994 billion per year—roughly 7% of annual revenue. That’s nearly a trillion dollars of falsified statements, mismanaged assets, check tampering, skimming off the top, kickbacks, and corruption. It turns out that it’s not just the Bernie Madoffs of the world that have sent trust in U.S. businesses plummeting.

A Web of Deception

Compounding this deception epidemic is the proliferation of new media technologies.

In the days when speaking face-to-face was the only way to communicate, dozens of subtle cues—body language, tone of voice, expression—were available to help us assess our companions’ trustworthiness.

But by increasing our ability to communicate from a distance, technology has drastically eroded the innate people-reading methods that our ancestors relied on for thousands of years.

Today, we might log on, get LinkedIn, and get lied to—while barely noticing.

The irony is that while it would seem that technology enhances transparency (see: all manner of misbehavior on YouTube), in many ways it does the opposite – allowing for masked realities, alternate identities, fabricated histories.

No matter how much data we have at our fingertips, there’s simply no substitute for looking someone in the eye and having a conversation. Since eighty percent of human communication is nonverbal, and sixty-five percent occurs through body language, personal interaction provides vital clues to a person’s intentions that online communication obscures. And while videoconferencing may seem like a solution, the locations of the screen and camera make such conversations nominally “face-to-face,” but far from “eye-to-eye.”

Absent probing eyes, lies proliferate. As early as 2004, Cornell researchers monitoring students’ online communications over a one-week period detected lies in 37% of their phone calls, 27% of their face-to-face meetings, 21% of their instant messages and 14% of their e-mails. Though lying occurred less frequently using the latter two forms of online communication, both leave paper trails, explaining their relative honesty-inducing power.

How then, to untangle this web of deception?

Getting Smart About Defeating Deception

One important approach involves strengthening corporate infrastructure and implementing smart anti-deception policies. This can range from setting up a fraud hotline—proven to increase anonymous tips, the most common method of detecting fraud—to conducting a deception audit and establishing formal codes of conduct.

Intelligent regulation of social media use can likewise improve office privacy and security—nothing tips off a competitor that you’re interested in acquiring that struggling Colorado conglomerate like a cheery “Just landed in Denver!” Facebook status update. With so many companies burned by casual use of Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking tools, I predict we’ll see new restrictions if not new wariness on the part of corporations regarding these tools.

And of course, there is no substitute for setting a strong, positive, ethical tone at the top. The most egregious perpetrators overwhelmingly cite “a poor tone at the top” as an impetus for their multimillion-dollar fraudulent activities.

Yet even these institutional improvements will fall short without a concerted effort at all levels to drive more of our interactions towards personal, face-to-face contact—and to give people the tools within those interactions to spot deception.

Untrained, the average human is no better at lie detecting than a chimpanzee. We get it right about half the time. Do police officers, psychologists, internal auditors, CEOs, or really good mothers do better? For the most part, no.

The grade school wish that a liar’s pants will actually burst into flames won’t come true—but liars actually do leave many telltale physical signs. Just a few hours of practice can prepare someone to recognize falsehoods with up to 95% accuracy.

When I train executives, human resources personnel, and security officers, I instruct them in a “liespotting” method I call BASIC, for Baseline, Ask, Study, Intuit, Confirm. Baseline requires that you observe others’ baseline behavior under normal conditions as a reference point (does John always jiggle his knee during conversations?). Then, ask open-ended questions to encourage more information-sharing (“What made you do that?” instead of “What time did you leave work?”). Study clusters of suspicious behavioral signs (qualifying statements, feet pointed towards the door, grooming gestures, weak denials, shifts in blink rate). Intuit statement, logic and emotional gaps in the story (how does John’s narrative mesh with reality?). Lastly, confirm and test your conclusions (e.g. by asking the same question in different ways).

The laundry list of signs to look for is long, but it boils down to being observant, keeping an open mind, and demonstrating a commitment to finding the truth.

Technology created an explosion of favorable conditions for deception. It’s time to push back. We need to step away from our machines and relearn how to communicate face-to-face, how to read people, how to connect and listen.

Ferreting out fraud is not about playing “gotcha,” or even about protecting the bottom line. It is a means of truth seeking—which ultimately leads to trust building. Only in this way can we be confident in our interactions, confident in our decisions, and most importantly, confident in each other.

That, fellow liars, is the truth.

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19 Responses to “Navigating a new age of deception”

  1. andy_mcf says:

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post. It is slanted, however, from a particularly negative point of view. What percentage of the time do we engage with one another honestly. It sounds alarming to say that we are lied to 10-200 times/day… but is that a large percentage?

    Lacking physical gestures/indicators, I am willing to grant the benefit of any doubt regarding this post's veracity. Let's chalk this up as being a truthful post, albeit, only part of the truth.

    • runner says:

      With the 'truth' being 100% honesty, and anything less considered a lie, the stats are accurate (proven in a few unrelated studies).

  2. O_Marroquin says:

    I suppose if you ask how someone is doing and they say "ok" and they are not.. they just lied to you. If you ask someone to take on a project and they accept and are excited, but inside they are not.. another lie. There are times when the truth will "hurt" and we choose not to communicate it. The problem is that the intent of the "lie" is in the eye of the beholder and intent usually can't be proven.. So whats the answer? Additionally side, people are trained in the art of communication, what to say, how to say it when to say it.. and its not always speaking directly.. so maybe we exacerbate the problem.

  3. Waldo says:

    Great article and I would love to attend a workshop or seminar of yours sometime…honestly. It is amazing that throughout history we have seen the damage done by dishonesty and deceit but still can’t seem to function without it. The movie, “Liar, Liar”, with Jim Carry was hilarious as well as poignant. I would go so far as to say virtually every economic and environmental problem we currently face can be traced back to deceit in one form or another, given that greed is a close relative of deceit. We just never learn and thus we appear to be incapable of being completely honest. The result is we must develop means of working around and through deception on a daily basis. Even in my work, (hospitality), there is a considerable amount of energy and resources exhausted working around others need to cover-up or divert attention from their deceit. Thanks for putting some facts to this topic and perhaps some will look inward as well as outward in detecting deception.

  4. buzz says:

    The topic of business related lying is starting to become as tedious and pathetic as the continual barrage of cheating spouse(s) stories on television. The importance of the issue needs to be kept in its proper context, either a potential threat to physical security or potentially great financial loss due to fraud performed by a relative few who have access to large sums of money. Just as some people can not resist lying, others can not resist playing "gotcha". One person's "truth seeking" is another's "gotcha". It is far better to trust others until they prove themselves deceitful. Even a person charged with committing a crime is presumed innocent until proven guilty.

  5. Chuck says:

    "The most egregious perpetrators overwhelmingly cite “a poor tone at the top” as an impetus for their multimillion-dollar fraudulent activities."

    In my experience, the people at the top tell the biggest whoppers. With all due respect Ms. Meyers, it's not only employees who lie. Managers do so to, particularly when they're responsible for a massive financial loss due to a stupid decision. They then lie to keep their jobs and continue to wreak havoc on an organization, despite 1) they probably never should have been managers in the first place, but they got the job solely due to politics; 2) after repeated bad decisions, they still never get demoted or fired.

  6. Curley Philosopher says:

    We don't all lie. Most of my ancestors were preachers and school teachers. My parents never lied to me or anyone else. Saying, "OK" when someone asks how you are is not a lie, even if I'm living a life of quiet desperation. I simply don't believe you were seriously asking me to list my complaints and that I would be bothering you if I did. It's a standard greeting. If I need a ride to the hospital, I will let you know. Otherwise, I will keep my minor aches and pains to myself, at least, until I reach retirement age. Then, you may be wise enough not to ask me how I am because I might just tell you the truth in detail. The truth is, all you frickin' liars pee me off! I gather people and business associates who do tell the truth. If you aren't doing well in life perhaps it is because of your false belief that everybody does it and so it's OK and you've been fired or ostracized for it. I may be your boss, x-boss

  7. pullthecurtain says:

    Bosses lie too!! Just saying! The effort from the top is emulated just like a child looks to a parent. Bosses should look in the mirror first before they go off assuming that their employees are not telling the truth.

  8. shu says:

    yes, it's interesting that some people can stand up and make a statement that: "Everyone is/are liers"…Those who are controllers have to label first in order to deal with someone. That's all I need is to worry about someone elses actions! …did I hear her say even the Bible?

    Yes, I believe there are some who do not lie for personal reasons!

    shu

  9. Michael Smalley says:

    "Ask me no questions and I'll tell you no lies", my Momma always used to say. Seriously though, I think the point of the article is what to do when knowing the truth really matters. Most of the time it doesn't so the statistic's only importance is exemplifying why the truth is difficult to detect and how to improve one's lie detection skills to validate truth.

  10. [...] interesting ted Talk on deception by Pamela Myer – remember, lying is a cooperative act…See also more on Lying and Deception Here November 11th, 2011 | Category: video var addedComment = function(response) { [...]

  11. As andy_mcf points out the "It is slanted, however, from a particularly negative point of view. " It is also slanted from another point of view that is just a s much a reality as the lying and deception by some job seekers. the article presumes or ignores the deception and lying on the part of the employer.

    Employers routinely make representations of "Equal Employment Opportunity". For example, Janice Job Hunter lands employment with ZYX Corp. Then six months after the "honeymoon' is over she finds herself in a minefield of sexual harassment, bullying, retaliation and more all aimed right at her.

    Career seekers should understand the importance of honesty on their resumes and applications. They should be just as aware of demanding honesty from the employers "resume" and "application" for the job seeker services.

  12. Savvy says:

    I have sat in meetings and watched managers lie – when everyone in the room knew they were lying! My own manager was a chronic liar. (I just retired – I could not take the lying any more – in a profession respected for its integrity!) These managers seemed to think nothing of lying face-to-face, and apparently didn't think that we all knew they were not being truthful. Yet for me to lie in the carrying out of my profession is illegal. What kind of role modeling is going on here? I reported some of the lying, and experienced very negative consequences; ultimately the working environment became intolerable, and as soon as I reached an age when I cold retire, I did. Pretty sad. Pretty discouraging too.

  13. Julia says:

    What I find interesting, is the behavior of those who let the lies go unpunished. Like the posts above, I am dumbfounded by those who can lie to a room full of people and get away with it.
    My former boss was a chronic liar and wreaked havoc with the staff. It was like kindergarten on the playground. As a manager, I spent the majority of my time putting out fires and had trouble finding the time to do my job.
    It can cost companies thousands of dollars when a chronic liar is in the midst. Not to mention the difficulty in retaining quality employees. The environment is no place for any employee to flourish. Everyday at work becomes a fight to survive.
    Liars, and those that encourage their bad behaviors, pass those costs to all of us. Lets think about Enron, the housing market, etc. Learning to speak up when a liar tries to sell a bogus bill of goods is what we need to learn how to do.

  14. [...] • Navigating a new age of deception (Smart Blogs) [...]

  15. [...] We’re all liars (apparently, people lie from 10 to 200 times each day. Ouch) – http://bit.ly/tUoW0D [...]

  16. A Watts says:

    I just saw this article, like it and appreciate the posts. Yes, lying is costly, and especially so when modeled by the top. I would like to see a follow-up article on how to tell when your organization or its leadership is lying – to its employees, customers, shareholders or other stakeholders; that's what extracts the highest toll. We are now paying the price for the lying, misrepresentation and paucity of truth-telling by investment banks, mortgage brokers, analysts, regulators and outright criminals like Bernie Madoff. Readers might be interested in my new book's practical suggestions for cultivating leadership and organizational integrity, and how that contributes to not only ethical, but more engaging and effective cultures. More info at http://www.integro-inc.com/About/NavigatingIntegr