We’ve all been there. The great deal that inexplicably goes sour. The blind date that seemed to go so well but now you’ve been ghosted for days. That fabulous new house you needed to outbid another buyer for? Turns out the estate agent wasn’t exactly being truthful and there wasn’t another couple itching to close the deal after all. How could you ever have been so naive?
It happens to us all. Everyone at one time or another is misled, misinformed and deceived. Put simply, we get lied to. And we don’t like it. Pamela Meyer really doesn’t like it. She disliked it so much that she wrote a book on the subject – Liespotting: Proven Techniques To Detect Deception (Griffin, £9.99) – and it turns out there is a well-funded, robust science of deception detection that has been practised by law enforcement and intelligence officials for years.
What scientists have discovered is that when we are trying to think what to say, act composed or appear spontaneous, the “cognitive load” is so high on our systems that we leak verbal and nonverbal indicators of deceit. This “leakage” comes in the form of deceptive cues that all of us display. So here are a few tips to help you uncover the truth and protect yourself from the steady stream of fabrication coming your way.
Eight ways to spot a liar
1. Look for hotspots: Did your colleague just smile, tell you how excited he is about the deal, shake your hand and then shrug his shoulders signalling uncertainty? When you see a conflict between someone’s body language and their words, consider it a red flag. Check for signalling congruence across three channels of communication: body language, words and paralinguistics (such as tone of voice, facial expressions and gestures).
2. Qualifying language: “You know, to tell you the truth, there was only a bit of alcohol at the party and in all honesty it seems to me there were no drugs or anything.” If that’s your teenager talking, time to call the party host’s parents and ask again.
3. Distancing language: Former US president Bill Clinton unconsciously distanced himself from his subject with the line: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” Liars will also replace “I” with “you”, avoiding talking in the first person. For example, “You never feel safe in the office at night; anyone could steal a computer.” Instead of “I never feel safe…”
4. Duping delight: That subtle smile at getting away with a big whopper. Liars sometimes do this without realising it and unconsciously delight in it. A smile doesn’t always mean someone is being deceptive, but when it’s inappropriate to the gravity of the question being asked, it can be a significant red flag. For example, if you were concerned your girlfriend didn’t come home last night and were worried about her, and she smiled while recounting a convoluted story about traffic, a lost wallet and other mishaps, well, you might be seeing duping delight.
5. The ‘I have something to hide’ posture: Arms crossed, slumped in chair, looking down, as if trying to disappear. A surefire red flag, especially if it’s not the norm for your subject to slouch around.
6. Post-interview relief: Law enforcement interrogators will subtly ask their subjects to tell their stories in backwards chronological order and then thank them and signal that the interview is over. Guilty subjects have a hard time with reverse-order questions because they rehearse their stories, but not their body language. Once guilty subjects think the interview is over, they will relax into the chair – relieved, exhaling, looking away or with their eyes gazing downward. Smart investigators will then start asking more questions, noting which ones cause their subject to stiffen up after they have displayed post-interview relief.
7. Repeating the question: Liars often feed back a hard question while trying to stall for time and think about their answer. These “parrot statements” can signal deception, especially when one simply never answers the question asked.
8. Asymmetry: The one-sided smile, frown or shrug is often used to mask what someone is really feeling. Truthful gestures are usually symmetrical. In particular, look for the facial expression of contempt – when one lip corner is pulled up and in, in an asymmetrical sneer, for example. The expression of contempt is associated with moral superiority and is very hard to recover from. If someone you are questioning flashes contempt at you while slightly shrugging one shoulder you can be sure there is a deeper truth that you need to understand.
Five questions to reveal the truth
1. “What’s the pettiest thing that’s bothering you about the weekend/the deal/your friend?”
When you ask a question this way, you signal that you will not judge the response, that your subject can tell you anything and you won’t make a big fuss about it. Miraculously, you will almost never hear anything petty. You’ll hear what’s really on your subject’s mind.
2. “Is there anything else you want to tell me?”
Take a lesson from negotiation studies and leave enough time for a long, relaxed and quiet conversation. At the end, calmly ask this question and you will likely hear the important details that were left out beforehand. Give your subject plenty of time to think, don’t rush, don’t worry if there are awkward silences after asking the question. Prompt your subject if they freeze: “Anything about the paperwork/the budget/the conference?”
3. “What should happen to the person who is found guilty?”
When you ask what your subject thinks should happen to whoever did commit an act under investigation, the guilty subject will recommend lenient punishment or simply say: “I don’t know.” Alternatively, the truthful subject will use a more cooperative tone and recommend a much stricter punishment, such as “Fire them!” or “Kick them out of the football league!”
4. “What might have motivated someone to do this?”
If you ask someone to speculate about a third person, the guilty subject will often offer up his own “story” for why that person did it. “The boss is so cheap he promised us all bonuses and then never followed through. Whoever took the money was probably promised a bonus he never got.” Once you understand someone’s motivation for committing a particular act, you have a much better chance of getting to the truth and getting your subject to talk. Offer up a few possible “stories” and see which one your subject responds to.
5. “Do you have any words of wisdom for me?”
Sounds a tad corny, but it works. If you are with someone who just won’t talk or is acting in a passive-aggressive way, often they need to feel empowered. Signal that you are willing to be subordinate to your subject and truly listen; take the words of wisdom they provide to heart and ask your subject thoughtful follow-up questions. Listen carefully and repeat what you hear back to your subject. Before you know it, the truth will unfold.