Let’s just state the obvious from the get-go: everyone lies. Some of us rarely tell anything more than a harmless little white lie, while others consistently tell so-outrageous-it-must-be-true whoppers. But we all do it. We lie to spare someone’s feelings, we lie to get ahead, we lie to avoid confrontation, and we lie to get out of trouble. And those are just four of the 96,341 reasons that we do it. Some are done with good intentions. Some are not.
Mark Twain said, “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” Bo Bennett said, “For every good reason there is to lie, there is a better reason to tell the truth.” And Paulo Coelho said, “Telling the truth and making someone cry is better than telling a lie and making someone smile.” It seems we lie frequently, but we don’t like it. Honesty, after all, is the best policy, right?
Right. But we encounter lies and liars all the time. Wouldn’t it be great if there was some obvious indicator whenever someone told a lie? Like Pinocchio’s nose, or an air horn that went off, or a giant red and blinking light.
- Where’s that report, Bill?
- I sent it down to your office over an hour ago. You didn’t get it?
[Lights flashing and sirens blaring] AWOOGA! AWOOGA!
- Sorry, Bill. I know you’re lying.
Sadly, though, we don’t have that – yet. (Come on, science, do something about it already!)
But you can still spot a liar if you pay attention. If you have 20 minutes to spare, watch Pamela Meyer’s TED Talk called How to Spot a Liar. The Liespotting author offers up some of the latest research about why we lie, and how to catch someone when they do it.
Spotting a liar is an art, but even the experts disagree on how best to do it. Practice makes perfect, and in this world, you’ll get lots of practice.
1. Don’t Ignore the Verbal Cues
So much of what we hear and read about catching a liar revolves around body language (see above). But you shouldn’t ignore their voice. Pay attention to what they’re saying, and more importantly, how they’re saying it.
LaRae Quy worked for the FBI for 23 years. She suggests watching for the following speaking patterns:
- Stressed individuals (as in someone lying) often speak faster and louder than usual.
- Frequent coughing or clearing of the throat could indicate tension.
- A crack in the voice (think squeaky-voiced teenager) often happens at the moment the lie is told.
Quy also recommends asking for someone to tell their “story” backwards, as liars often memorize sequence and details in order so it appears natural. They struggle with telling it moving in a different direction.
2. Move Past Looking for “Tells”
If you’ve heard anything about how to spot a liar, it’s probably that most people have tiny little ticks and tells that give us away. Called micro expressions, these small, almost unnoticeable movements can reveal deception. Darting eyes, nervous fidgeting, touching our face, blushing, and so on.
Only the jury is still out. Body language is part cultural and social (things we all do within a certain group), but it’s also very personal. There is no one way to nonverbally express anything, so watching for a set of micro expressions can, at best, suggest that someone is lying. Maybe. Perhaps. Kind of.
According to Thomas Ormerod, a professor of psychology at the University of Sussex, trying to uncover a liar via body language is little better than guessing. “There are no consistent signs that always arise alongside deception,” he said in a recent BBC article.
3. Watch for Defensiveness
Liars get defensive when confronted. It makes sense. When you ask what should be a simple question like “where’d you go?” or “who was there?” and you’re met with anger, shock, or stalling tactics, there’s a good chance they’re lying (again, the keyword here is chance). If they stammer and act indignant that you would even ask such a thing, it should set off some alarms for you.
4. Ask Open-Ended Questions
Anyone can answer a quick yes or no question. And because it’s a one-word response, your chances of catching a lie are reduced exponentially. Instead, ask open-ended questions that require a much longer response. For example:
- Don’t ask: Was Becky there?
- Do ask: Who was there?
Wait for them to list off the names, and then ask a few follow-up questions that require still more detail and precision. The longer a liar has to speak, the more likely they’ll trip themselves up in the deception. It’s hard to keep track of everything they have to create to fill in the details.
5. Don’t Pounce on Contradictions and Mistakes
The general idea is to get them talking – a lot – and observe the story specifics as they’re revealed. But don’t jump on the first contradiction you notice. Resist the temptation. If they say they drove down First Avenue on their way to work, and you know First Avenue is closed for repairs, let it go for now. Add it to your mental list. Pouncing on the first thing gives them an easy out… they can quickly come up with some acceptable excuse or explanation for it. But let them keep going – digging their own grave – and the more confident they’ll start to feel, the more careless they’ll become in their deceit. Wait for it.
6. Notice Their Overall Behavior
No one lies all the time (hopefully). And when we do lie, we’ll likely experience at least a dip in our normal confidence level. We’re trying to get away with something. We don’t know if it will work. If we’re caught, there will be consequences. That’s a lot to deal with all at once.
So ask yourself: just how confident do they seem in their story? Are they less confident than usual? Hmm… wonder why.
7. Ask Them If They’re Honest
This one seems a little too obvious, but Ormerod also recommends asking them early on if they’re an honest person – point blank and explicitly. For starters, it catches them off-guard. It’s an unexpected question, and surprise is a good method for putting liars off their game. Second, when someone answers that they are honest, it seems to make them less inclined to lie later.
And if they can’t, won’t, or don’t answer the question, well, that’s a pretty good indicator, too.
Some people are gifted liars, able to lie about anything at any time with success. Other people can’t lie to save their life. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle. Watching for some magical cue doesn’t usually cut it. Body language can and probably should be part of the formula, but don’t rely on it exclusively. Your best approach seems to be to just get them talking. Ask questions and then follow-up questions about their answers. Let them run with it before you call them on their BS.
I remember hearing that liars always look up and to the left (or right, depending on the source), as they’re accessing the creative side of their brain in the creation of their lie. Not so, according to The Daily Mail.
What about you? How do you know when someone is lying to you? What tricks do you use? Leave your suggestions in the comments section below!