Tips For Spotting A Liar During A Negotiation

People lie. Some more than others, and frequently right to your face.

A practiced liar can be extremely difficult to detect, which can have a big impact on negotiations that goes unnoticed until it’s too late.

In a recent paper written up at Harvard Business School Working Knowledge, the University of Wisconsin’s Lyn M. Van Swol and Michael T. Braun, and Harvard Business School’s Deepak Malhotra took a look at whether there were any telltale language clues that can help detect a liar. 

The authors tested this by having people play a modified variety of the classic ultimatum game, where one player receives money and decides how to divide it with a partner. The “receiver” can either accept the split, or refuse, leaving both with nothing. 

Here are a few of the tips from their research: 

  • In something they called the “Pinocchio effect,” explicit liars used many more words than those who told the truth.
  • Liars by omission used fewer words.
  • Those who lied about the amount of money they got tended to use more swear words.
  • Liars used more third-person pronouns, and more complex sentences. 

A lot of these insights make sense at first glance. There’s an instinct to distrust people that are excessively verbose, to assume they’re trying to cover something else by saying a lot. Particularly when the information’s relatively simple, talking a lot can be an attempt to get people to miss a lie. 

The authors attribute some of the things, like swearing more, to the fact that lying takes more attention, meaning that you spend less time focusing on what language you’re using. 

These aren’t foolproof tips. But they’re a guide to when you should keep more of an eye out. 

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