How To Spot a Liar
Did you ever have the strong feeling that someone was lying to you, but you could not exactly explain why you felt that way? When people lie, they “leak” unconscious signals of their deception and the emotional reaction to it. You have probably picked up on them intuitively in the past, thus that strong feeling. But if you arm yourself with knowledge of some basic techniques to spot the leaking signals, you will be able to articulate why you suspect they are lying, and even confront them on it!
1. Answer a question by repeating the question.
This is a technique more often used by someone making up a lie on the spot. By repeating the question, she buys a little time to decide what to say. Or she might ask, “Me?” when it is obvious that you are talking to her. Example: “Me? Did I take the money? No way!”
2. Using more pronouns and fewer contractions.
These often go together when a liar is trying to make an emphatic statement of what he hopes you will believe. Using pronouns rather than proper names is an unconscious way for the lying person to distance himself from the lie, as well as avoiding telltale missteps when telling a complicated whopper involving multiple people. The classic example of this technique is President Clinton’s denial: “I did not have sex with that woman!”
3. Look one way when telling the truth, but the opposite when lying.
You will often hear that a person will look up to the right when she is lying, but this is not necessarily true. What is true is that she will look in one direction when trying to recall a truthful fact, and the opposite when making up a story. The eyes reflect the side of the brain the person is accessing: one side of the brain processes objective information and the other houses our more creative processes. Most people are right-handed and their left brain is the factual side and right brain is the fanciful one, which is where the shorthand guideline comes from. But left-handed people are “wired” the opposite way. The best way to interpret a particular person’s “eye signals” is to ask a factual question that she needs to recall, but that she would not need to lie about, and observe her eyes while she answers that. Then watch for looks in the opposite direction when asking questions you suspect may produce untruths.
4. Unconsciously assuming protective postures.
Lying makes a person nervous, even if he is good at covering it up, and being nervous triggers our flight-or-flight response. It is suppressed and controlled because in most modern social situations a person is not literally going to attack or flee, but the impulse still reveals itself in small ways. A person who is not frequently dishonest will exhibit this tendency more strongly, while an accomplished liar will show more subtle signs. Look for defensive postures such as hunching over, crossing his arms, or keeping his chin down. Less obvious signals include choosing a place to sit or stand that places a barrier between you, holding unusually still, and placing feet pointing toward the exit.
5. Blinking, swallowing, and scratching.
These behaviors are induced by physical and chemical body responses to lying. Again, a person who is a practiced liar tends to have a weaker physical response because she is used to lying so the signs are subtler. Lying produces adrenaline, which dries out the mucous membranes and in response, a person will swallow and blink more. A person who is being untruthful will very frequently scratch or touch their mouth or nose area, for physical and psychological reasons. Psychologically, a person wants to cover the mouth when falsehoods are coming out, and physically, the stress reaction to lying produces histamines, which make the facial area itchy.
6. Lots of details, whether you ask for them or not.
Someone who has invented a more complicated story, “working” on their lie, has a desire to see if it works, and will often tell his story, complete with details, whether you ask for those details or not. The narrative will often include extra information about what they did or who they saw, which is like verbal snow providing cover for the critical untrue information. A rehearsed lie can be very smooth and sound convincing, but if you can find ways to ask questions that involve more details of one spot in the sequence, or which require retelling the sequence in a different order, the liar will trip up almost every time. A real event is easy to recall out of sequence or by focusing in on specific details, but a made-up one is not.
If people’s noses really grew or their pants actually burst into flames when they lie, spotting a liar would be easy. In real life, though, lies are harder to detect, and you can’t strap your spouse, boss or employee to a lie detector. But if you practice watching for these signs of deception, you won’t need such drastic measures, because you will be a human lie detector!