How to Spot a Liar

A friend says a gift is in the mail when it isn’t. A neighbor swears she loves your new fence

A friend says a gift is in the mail when it isn’t. A neighbor swears she loves your new fence when she really can’t stand the sight of it. A salesclerk claims his store is offering big savings on everything in stock, when only a few select items, as it turns out, are marked down. Little white lies (of all sorts) are tossed our way daily, and getting to the truth of the matter can be frustrating, time-consuming, even upsetting.

“Lies occur between friends, between teacher and student, doctor and patient, husband and wife, witness and jury, lawyer and client, and salesperson and customer,” says Paul Ekman, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California, San Francisco. Ekman has been studying deceptive behavior for more than four decades and is the author of several books on the subject. “Lying is such a central characteristic of life,” he says, “that understanding it better is relevant to almost all human affairs.”

How can we spot the lies we’re told, both the little white ones that don’t matter a whole lot and the real whoppers that do? Try these compelling tips from the experts.

Ever notice the pitch of someone’s voice change from its norm? Hear a voice crack when it isn’t the cracking type? Pay attention to voice changes like these; they may well indicate deceit.

When Paul Ekman teamed with Maureen O’Sullivan, professor of psychology at the University of San Francisco, to test 509 people for their ability to spot liars, the results were telling. The group included Secret Service, CIA and FBI personnel, as well as psychiatrists and college students. They were shown a videotape of ten individuals who were either lying or telling the truth.

On the tape, one woman described the lovely flowers she was supposedly looking at. Though she was smiling as she spoke, a few keen observers detected an odd hesitation in her voice. Her words lacked joy, and her hands seemed tense, not relaxed. One of the Secret Service agents labeled her a liar, and he was right. She wasn’t looking at flowers at all, but rather at a graphic film the evaluators were showing. (The Secret Service employees, by the way, nailed the liars 86 percent of the time, better than others in the group.)

Though other important behaviors need to be considered as well, vocal changes that deviate from the norm can indicate deception. “There may also be a change in speech rate, either too fast or too slow, and a change in breathing pattern,” says O’Sullivan. Watch Those Words
How about written material? Can we spot misleading behavior in letters, documents, e-mails and even résumés?

At the University of Texas at Austin, psychology professor James Pennebaker and colleagues have developed computer software known as Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC), which analyzes written and verbal content for lies. Deception can reveal itself in two significant ways, explains Pennebaker.

First, liars tend to use fewer first-person pronouns — words like I, me, mine — than truth tellers. It’s as if they’re putting psychological distance between themselves and their stories; they don’t “own” their message. “The paperwork was sent yesterday” is an example, as opposed to the direct and personal “I sent it yesterday.” Second, liars use fewer exclusionary words — but, nor, except, whereas. They have trouble with complex thinking, says Pennebaker, and it shows.

While most people tend to interpret darting, unfocused eyes as a classic sign of lying, what’s vital to consider is the context of the behavior. (Experienced poker players, of course, are careful not to make too much of eye “tells.”)

“If people look away while trying to think of something difficult, that is not important,” says O’Sullivan. “But if they look away while answering something that should be easy to answer, you should wonder why.”

And what is the conversation about, anyway? The subject matter is critical. “If people are lying about something they’re ashamed of, they’ll have difficulty maintaining eye gaze,” notes O’Sullivan. “For white lies, though, or lies that aren’t shameful, people may actually increase their eye gaze.”

Get Better at Body Language
No single part of the face or body, such as the eyes, nose, ears or hands, can tell us the whole story when it comes to lying. It’s not that simple. “There is no Pinocchio’s nose,” says Ekman flatly. Instead, “you must consider the fit among face, body, voice and speech to reach high levels of accuracy.”

That means observing the “total person” whenever possible. “Clues must always be interpreted in light of the usual behavior,” explains O’Sullivan. “Changes in small hand movements, changes in the amount of hand gestures, shrugs that are inconsistent with what’s being said” — these are worth homing in on, she suggests. So are changes in body posture at particular points in a conversation.

Watch for “a change in the baseline,” says O’Sullivan. “For instance, a quiet person who talks a lot, or a person who talks a lot who is now quiet. It doesn’t necessarily mean someone’s lying, but it’s a hot spot to evaluate.” Check for Emotional Leaks
The micro-expressions that flit across people’s faces often expose what they’re truly feeling or thinking, as opposed to what they’d like us to believe, explains Ekman. But these ultra-brief facial movements, some lasting a quarter of a second, aren’t a cinch to spot. Even professionals trained in the art of lie detection — police personnel, judges, attorneys — can’t always isolate them. And deliberate liars tend to layer on other expressions, like smiling, to further disguise a lie.

Still, there are giveaways. “It isn’t the frequency of a smile that matters, but the type of smile,” says Ekman. “There are smiles of true enjoyment, which involve not just the lips but the muscles that orbit the eyes. And there are masking smiles, which are made to cover fear, anger, sadness or disgust. If you’re a good observer, you can see a trace of one of those emotions leak through.”

So here’s hoping the next time someone lobs a lie our way, we’ll know just how to catch it.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest