Lying Words: Predicting Deception From Linguistic Styles

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Liars and truth-tellers communicate in qualitatively different ways; liars tend to tell stories that are less complex, less self-relevant, and more characterized by negativity. Liars often use first-person pronouns at a lower rate than truth-tellers. The lower rate of self-references is believed to reflect an attempt by liars to “dissociate” themselves from the lie. Liars often use negative emotion words at a higher rate than truth-tellers. Liars may feel guilty, either because of their lie or because of the topic they are lying about. Because of this tension and guilt, liars may express more negative emotion. Liars often use fewer “exclusive” words (except, without, etc.), suggesting lower cognitive complexity. Telling a false story is a highly cognitively complicated task. Adding information about what did not happen may require cognitive resources that the typical liar does not possess. Liars sometimes use more “motion” verbs; also suggesting lower cognitive complexity. Because liars’ stories are fabricated, some of their cognitive resources are taken up by the effort of creating a believable story. Motion verbs (e.g., walk, go, carry) provide simple, concrete descriptions and are more readily accessible than words that focus on evaluations and judgments.

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Newman, Matthew L., James W. Pennebaker, Diane S. Berry, and Jane M. Richards. “Lying Words: Predicting Deception from Linguistic Styles.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 29, no. 5 (May 2003): 665–75.