People’s fascination with lie detection has been demonstrated by the popularity of TV shows and movies such as Lie To Me and The Negotiator, where complex concepts such as micro-expressions and eye movement patterns are reduced to sound-bytes that make them easy for public consumption. While it is true that the more time and energy you put into studying lie detection techniques the better a “people reader” you will become, you can also pick up some fast and easy techniques to help you learn how to detect lies.
To begin detecting dishonest statements, it is helpful to get a feel for the overall landscape of lie detection. The broad areas you will want to pay attention to are body language, emotional signals, interactions which reveal guilt or discomfort, word choice and physiology.
You may want to watch this video to have a brief idea first:
When noticing body language for the purposes of learning how to detect lies, start contrasting someone’s non-verbal communication by establishing a baseline of veracity. One way to do this is to make a statement that you know to be true and then mentally record how the subject’s body looks when they respond. For example, if you know the person went to Hawaii for vacation, state firmly, “So you went to Hawaii last month for a week. Fantastic!” Then state something that you know to be false: “And you took a cruise there. What an experience!” Watch as they non-verbally disagree and then watch their body language as they correct you. Now you have two mental snap shots of their “yes” and “no” that will give you a baseline for further calibration. In the future, when you make “yes” or “no” statements or questions, you should see the same physiology as the baseline that you established. If not, there could be deception involved.
Here is some general physiology people display when they are lying:
- Stiff or limited hand and arm movements
- Decreased eye contact
- Increased hand contact with face
- Body language does not match words
The way people express emotions can reveal whether they are being honest or not. In this category, simply becoming aware of abnormal expressions of emotions will help you learn how to detect lies.
- Watch for delayed emotions
- Notice emotions that last longer than what is natural for the person
- Emotional expression is limited to one area of the face rather than the whole face
Our choice of words can reveal dishonesty as well. When a person is creating a deception, they need to distance themselves from the lie due to the cognitive dissonance created by the deception. To do this, they alter how they represent the lie to themselves, and this representation will cause a waterfall effect on their language.
Of special and recent interest, even our pronoun usage can reveal whether we are lying or telling the truth. According to Dr. James W. Pennebaker of the University of Texas at Austin, pronouns such as “I,” “me” and “my” show ownership of a statement. Therefore, when someone is lying, they will use these pronouns less, as they are further linguistic signs of distance from the lie.
- A person being dishonest will make less direct statements.
- They will often repeat your exact words.
- Unnecessary details are added to the deceptive statement.
- A statement with a contraction like “wouldn’t” or “didn’t” is more likely to be truthful than the uncontracted form.
- Liars will interject words like “actually,” “to be honest,” or “frankly.”
- An abrupt change of subject is another sign of dishonesty.
Much of what has been written previously about how to detect lies is within the conscious control of the deceptive person. There are, however, “tells” that are generally outside a person’s consciousness that are harder to repress or control.
- Sweating can be a sign of lying.
- Lying can cause an increase in the secretion of the hormone adrenaline. This causes a fluctuation in saliva production, which causes the person to first have to swallow more and later clear their throat due to dryness.
- Since the heart is usually beating faster, a person being dishonest will breathe faster.
- Decreased blinking of the eyes can also be a sign of lying.
While lying is prevalent, it does not come naturally. Deep down, most people want to tell the truth, even when they feel they need to lie. To accomplish this feat, the brain goes into cognitive overload in order to provide the resources necessary to pull off the lie. Since the mind and body are connected in various ways, it makes sense that when the brain has an increase on its cognitive load, the body will show symptoms. The single key to becoming good at lie detection is to look at the big picture (all of the above indications) in relation to the person you are observing. Make sure you account for cultural norms and personal idiosyncrasies by gaining rapport with the individual you are studying. Keep an open mind and stay relaxed, and you will be on your way to becoming a master lie detector!