Decoding Deception: Five Ways to Spot a Lie
Lying is a behavior we are all familiar with- in one form or another. Little white lies are told to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. “This meatloaf is delicious,” you might say to your friend’s mother, although you secretly think it’s quite bland.
Then there are the more serious deceits which can have legal, moral, or social consequences. When Brian Williams falsely reported being under fire during the Iraq War, he was instantly suspended as an NBC news anchor. After lying under oath, famed cyclist Lance Armstrong was stripped of his Tour de France victories and was forced to return his Olympic bronze medal.
And of course, who could forget Bill Clinton’s infamous one-liner during the Monica Lewinsky scandal?
So Why Do We Lie?
The art of deception exists because it is a useful social strategy. It helps us escape conflict or punishment, reduce stress, avoid an embarrassing dilemma, or protect others from the truth. More malicious liars use fibs as a tool for control, manipulation, or even abuse. In fact, studies suggest that the average person lies about once or twice per day.
However, there are other differences as well. Pathological liars have a long history of spinning webs without a logical reason for doing so. Some researchers believe that these individuals suffer from low self-esteem and lie as a defense mechanism to project a false identity.
Establishing a Baseline
Whatever the motive, lying is a complex psychological and physiological process. To get a sense if Michael is lying, you first need a baseline reading. How does he act and react in a normal, non-threatening situation? Asking neutral questions is key. A neutral question should always be open (cannot be answered with yes or no), nonjudgmental, and should give freedom to the replier. “Tell me about yourself” or “Could you give me your view of the situation?” are questions with no hidden agenda that are used to understand others. Chances are Michael would have no issue sharing whatever he feels is comfortable.
Now pay attention to his body language. How does he express himself? How does he sound? Does he fidget a lot? Once a baseline has been set, you can begin to pick up on deviations.
In this video, behavioral investigator and body language expert Vanessa Van Edwards talks about the importance of setting a baseline as well as cues to look out for:
Liars tend to give off certain stress signals while in the act and the face is the best indicator. While most people believe lack of eye contact is a telltale sign, research suggests otherwise. Instead, micro expressions are much more valuable. These involuntary facial expressions occur at a fraction of a second and are harder to fake than prolonged macro expressions. More importantly, the emotions captured, however briefly, hold true for all people, regardless of culture or location. These seven universal feelings include joy, surprise, contempt, sadness, anger, disgust, and fear. Pay close attention to the eyebrows, eyelids, lip corners, and any facial wrinkles that form- these visuals can reveal a person’s true state of mind.
Observing Body Language
While the face is quite animated, it is also more subject to control. Body language can mirror glimpses of micro expressions. Since dishonesty is a stressful act for most people aside from psychopaths, it stimulates the fight-or-flight response. This can cause throat clearing or hard swallowing as moisture in the throat is drawn away and diverted into sweat. Posture can be a clue as well. Someone who is lying may lean their head or body back as a way of distancing themselves from subjects or people they dislike. They may have difficulty nodding their head in agreement or leaning forward because empathy is hard to maintain during deception. Consider hand gestures and foot movement too. Hand motions like finger pointing or touching fingertips together imply confidence, something liars lack. But if Jack is an actor or a politician, it can be tricky. Maybe Sheila is crossing her legs constantly because she is worried about being exposed. Or perhaps, she could be irritated, bored, or sitting in an uncomfortable chair.
Keep in mind, physiologic changes such as uneven breathing, increased heart rate, or sweating can equally be a sign of a falsehood as it can be of a stressful state.
Responsiveness— or lack thereof is another feature to look out for. The truth flows quickly and needs no extra thought. If you ask Carlos, “Where were you last night?” there should be no hesitation. While delays or pauses can trigger suspicion, they can also hint at a touchy subject. Perhaps Carlos was at the homeless shelter and is reluctant to share it.
By extension, the dishonest often use stall tactics to appear responsive. “Well, it depends on what you mean by that” or “Could you repeat the question?” are ways to buy time to plan a well sounding response. Keep in mind, those telling the truth will try to explain themselves as much as possible while liars try hard not to reveal false info. As a result, the guilty are slower to answer questions and tend to talk less.
Vocal and Verbal Cues
The voice is a language all its own. Changes in baseline speech pattern are indicators of discomfort. These include suddenly higher pitch, faster rate of speech, or hesitation fillers like “uhs” or “ums”. Shifts in verbal style such as stutters, frequent pauses, or lack of contractions can suggest guilt. If Sarah claims, “I did not do it” instead of “I didn’t do it”, she may be emphasizing her denial, which is unnecessary if she is truly innocent.
Verbal content is another important cue. Skilled deceivers tend to gloss over details via text bridges as a way of withholding information while still seeming to tell the truth. For example, a murder suspect might state, “I went to buy groceries and after I returned home, I found my husband lying in a pool of blood.” This might sound truthful enough, but the word after is a clue that there are missing events. The transition is meant to convey that as soon as the suspect came home, they found their spouse already dead. But it could also mean that they came back home, unloaded their groceries, got into a heated argument with their husband, and then killed them.
Other commonly used text bridges include then, when, so, later on, while, afterwards, eventually, or I don’t remember.
Trust Your Instinct
If your internal lie detector is telling you something is off, listen. Look for clusters of odd behaviors- these reveal a lie or a sensitive topic. In either case, if a question causes discomfort, try revisiting it at a later time. Rephrase the question or ask for specifics in order to determine the source of distress. Remember, honest people can sometimes incriminate themselves and liars can seem truthful. Try to examine your own strategies for decoding deception and place yourself in the mind of a liar. You might be surprised by what you can pick up.
Remember also that we can even trick ourselves into thinking that an event happened, even if it didn’t. Our brains create false memories when we convince ourselves that something is true, sometimes intentionally but often without realizing it. Think about it, can you remember where you were when 9/11 happened? Could you give a detailed account of your first day of school? It is often the case that, without meaning to, we change events in our mind, and those alterations become our new reality. While in many cases this isn’t dangerous and doesn’t affect other people, it can sometimes have major consequences. Imagine that you’re testifying in court about the person you swear you saw rob the bank. Are you sure that he had a beard, or did you start to think that he did after being questioned?
Ansel Oommen is a research assistant for the Research Foundation for Mental Hygiene at the NYS Psychiatric Institute at Columbia University Medical Center. As a journalist with a B.S. in Toxicology, his previous credits include Yale Scientific, Well Being Journal, and Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine.