What should you do when you catch someone in a lie?

Businesswomen glaring at each other in office
It's important to ask yourself if it's worth it to confront the liar: Is the fib a relationship deal breaker or a little white lie meant to spare your feelings? Copyright Jamie Grill Getty Images/Tetra images RF
Copyright Jamie Grill Getty Images/Tetra images RF
By Vivian Manning-Schaffel with NBC News Better
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When you're confronted with a lie, the best approach is to fact check and get solid evidence before calling someone out.


Maybe you got a "sorry I'm sick" text from a pal you had long standing plans with, only to see them whooping it up on the town on social media. Or perhaps, far more seriously, you learned someone you love flat out betrayed your trust. However it happens, catching someone in a lie is never, ever fun.

Why do liars feel compelled to lie? For a myriad of reasons. Here's one: They might tell a little white lie to spare someone's feelings. When groups of people were asked to critique an essay for a 2017 study, researchers found "the relationship between compassion and prosocial lying was partially mediated by an enhanced importance placed on preventing emotional harm." Or, more selfishly, they might lie in order to cover their tracks, get away with something and/or not look like the bad guy.

How do they manage to get away with it? One answer could be found in a study, published in "Memory," that explores a theory toyed with once on "Seinfeld," where George tries to help Jerry best a lie detector test with this somewhat accurate bon mot: "Jerry? Just remember…it's not a lie if you believe it." Just like an actor committing to a role.

So, what should you do if you think you've heard a lie? Here are four ways to spot a lie and decide whether or not a confrontation is warranted.

Listen to your gut

When we suspect we've been lied to, we might start to look for tells, like avoiding eye contact, changes in routine behavior, and stories and excuses that don't add up. Yet, depending on your position in the situation, it can be easier to ignore the tells in spite of gnawing feelings of suspicion. "In these situations, we can very often lie to ourselves and collude in the lie, so it is more important than ever to access our intuition and maintain our integrity," says Dr. Tara Swart, neuroscientist and author of "The Source: Open Your Mind, Change Your Life." "When we look back, we most often regret not extracting ourselves from a situation based on a lie. Rather we need to look back and know that we relied on our intuition and acted in our best interests. Otherwise self-esteem suffers and we are likely to repeat the same patterns of behavior," she says.

Examine the motive

Dr. Tim Levine, Distinguished Professor and Chair of Communication Studies at University of Alabama at Birmingham and Global Professor of Communication and Media at Korea University, Seoul, says, when you're confronted with a lie, the best approach is look for solid evidence, beginning with motive. What would the liar have to gain by lying to you? "Does the person have a reason to lie? If it (what you hear) does not sound plausible and the person might have a motive to lie, then your suspicion might be warranted. You can always ask them questions as a test," Levine explains. In other words, fact check the situation by asking carefully considered questions that might confirm the lie.

Consider the gravity of the lie

Once you've considered possible motive, it's time to ask yourself if it's worth the energy it might take to confront the liar. Is the deception a relationship deal breaker that eradicates any hope of future trust? Or a white lie told to spare your feelings? If the latter, it might be enough to consider forsaking a confrontation in favor of making a mental note of the situation for future reference.

If you still want to get to the heart of the matter, Levine tries to assert his need for honesty while reserving judgment. "I tell people that I appreciate direct and honest feedback," says Levine. "They can give me negative feedback in private and that will save me from greater discomfort later. I let them know that I respect that and won't hold it against them. When I do get negative feedback, I try to respond constructively and not defensively."

Have a heart-to-heart

Swart says, most times, we owe it to ourselves to deal with deceptions head on. If you decide it's worth it, confront the fib flinger to try and salvage trust. "It is better to find out the reasons the white lie was told to be able to maintain trust in the relationship. If it was done for benign reasons, you can choose to develop yourself based on the feedback, and you know you can trust that person in future. Trust, once broken, is very hard to regain."

How to navigate other tough social situations

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