How to Tell If Someone Is Lying
Most people lie from time to time. Some of these lies are little white lies intended to protect someone else’s feelings (“No, that shirt does not make you look fat!”). In other cases, these lies can be much more serious (like lying on a CV) or even sinister (covering up a crime).
People also like to believe that they are pretty good at detecting lies and folk wisdom suggests a wide variety of ways to root out dishonesty. Some of the most common: Liars tend to fidget and squirm. They won’t look you in the eye. They have shifty eyes when they are telling a lie. Research suggests that most of these notions are simply old wives tales.
Clearly, behavioral differences between honest and lying individuals are difficult to discriminate and measure. Many studies have shown that even trained investigators are remarkably poor at telling if someone is lying or telling the truth.
Several studies have shown that while individual signals and behaviors are useful indicators of deception, some of the ones most often linked to lying (such as eye movements) are among the worst predictors. So while body language can be a useful tool in the detection of lies, the key is to understand which signals to pay attention to.
Psychologists have also utilized research of body language and deception to help members of law enforcement distinguish between the truth and lies. Researchers at UCLA conducted studies on the subject in addition to analyzing 60 studies on deception in order to develop recommendations and training for law enforcement. The results of their research were published in the April 2016 issue of the American Journal of Forensic Psychiatry.
Here is what body language can (and cannot) tell you on how to actively root out lies, and why you should trust your instincts. A few of the potential red flags the researchers identified that might indicate that people are deceptive include:
• Being vague; offering few details
• Repeating questions before answering them
• Speaking in sentence fragments
• Failing to provide specific details when a story is challenged
• Grooming behaviors such as playing with hair or pressing fingers to lips
Lead researcher R. Edward Geiselman suggests that while detecting deception is never easy, quality training can improve a person’s ability to detect lies. “Without training, many people think they can detect deception, but their perceptions are unrelated to their actual ability. Quick, inadequate training sessions lead people to over-analyze and to do worse than if they go with their gut reactions.”
Research has also shown that people do tend to pay attention to many of the correct behavioral cues associated with deception. A 2001 meta-analysis by researchers Hartwig and Bond found that while people do rely on valid cues for detecting lies, the problem might lie with the weakness of these cues as deception indicators in the first place.
Some of the most accurate deception cues that people do pay attention to include:
• Being vague: If the speaker seems to intentionally leave out important details, it might be because they are lying.
• Vocal uncertainty: If the person seems unsure or insecure, they are more likely to be perceived as lying.
• Indifference: Shrugging, lack of expression, and a bored posture can be signs of lying since the person is trying to avoid conveying emotions and possible tells.
• Overthinking: If the individual seems to be thinking too hard to fill in the details of the story, it might be because they are deceiving you.
The lesson here is that while body language may be helpful, it is important to pay attention to the right signals. Experts suggest that relying too heavily on such signals may impair the ability to detect lies. Next, learn more about a more active approach to figuring out if someone is telling the truth.
Ask Them to Tell Their Story in Reverse
Lie detection is often seen as a passive process. People often assume that they can just observe the potential liar’s body language and facial expressions to spot obvious “tells.” While research has shown that this is a pretty bad way to detect lies, taking a more active approach to uncovering lies can yield better results.
Increasing the Mental Load Makes Lying More Difficult
Research suggests that asking people to report their stories in reverse order rather than chronological order can increase the accuracy of lie detection. The researchers suggest that the verbal and non-verbal cues that distinguish between lying and truth-telling become more apparent as cognitive load increases. In other words, lying is more mentally taxing than telling the truth. If you add even more cognitive complexity, behavioral cues may become more apparent.
Not only is telling a lie more cognitively demanding, but liars typically exert much more mental energy toward monitoring their behaviors and evaluating the responses of others. They are concerned with their credibility and ensuring that other people believe their stories. All this takes a considerable amount of effort, so if you throw in a difficult task (like relating their story in reverse order), cracks in the story and behavior tells might become easier to spot.
Finally, what’s the best way to spot a liar? The reality is that there is no universal, sure-fire sign that someone is lying. All of the signs, behaviors, and indicators that researchers have linked to lying are simply clues that might reveal whether a person is being forthright.
So the next time you are trying to gauge the veracity of an individual’s story, stop looking at the clichéd “lying signs” and learn how to spot more subtle behaviors that might be linked to deception. When necessary, take a more active approach by adding pressure and make telling the lie more mentally taxing by asking the speaker to relate the story in reverse order.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, trust your instincts. You might have a great intuitive sense of honesty versus dishonesty, you just need to learn to heed those gut feelings.