For years, experts said that, if you wanted to ‘out’ a liar, you should watch their body language. Not so fast, say psychologists today. The problem is that humans have such a diverse lexicon of body language that watching a person’s movement isn’t a good barometer of whether they are fibbing or telling the truth.
As Thomas Ormerod, a professor of psychology at the University of Sussex, noted in an interview with BBC:
“There are no consistent signs that always arise alongside deception. I giggle nervously, others become more serious, some make eye contact, some avoid it.”
In other words, nervousness, a supposed telltale sign of dishonesty, isn’t such a good indicator after all. As former FBI special agent Joe Navarro notes, the idea that crossing one’s arms, looking away, touching one’s mouth and other physical lie indicators is “nonsense.”
Contrary to popular belief, what a person says and how that person says it is a much better indicator of whether they are telling the truth than their body language. There’s actually a geyser of knowledge on this topic, but I’m giving you the compact version here. That is to say, I’m sharing the top five ways to tell if someone is lying to you.
What goes into lying?
Before you can catch a liar, you need to understand what goes into lying. Multiple research sources indicate that person who is lying about something important often puts a lot of thought into it. Liars frequently come into their lies with a back story — essentially talking points. They know what they want to lie to you about, what story they have built around the lie and what details they plan to tell you about that lie. In short, liars have frequently built very structured and rigid narratives. It also takes more brainpower to lie than it does to tell the truth.
As Federal Probation, a journal of criminal justice and corrections notes:
“Practiced and well-prepared liars are harder to catch than naïve or ill-prepared liars. There are two major kinds of cues to untruth: emotional leakage and thinking errors.”
Your job is to catch the liar’s emotional leakage and thinking errors.
Ask them to tell their story backward
Since liars come to the table expecting to tell a specific narrative starting from Point A, followed by Point B and Point C, they are often thrown off when you ask them about events in their story backward. For example, if the person tells you that he went to a pizza place at 9 p.m. last night, then you should ask him: “You said you went to the pizza place at 9 p.m. last night. What did you do before that?”
As the American Psychological Association (APA) notes:
“Truth tellers can rely on their memories to tell their story backward, often adding more details, but liars tend to struggle because they must invent the details on the spot.”
Ask them a random question
If you suspect that someone is lying to you, ask them seemingly random questions about their story. Liars often rehearse their stories over and over again to prepare for the questions they expect to get but they can’t predict every question. For example, if they said they went to a pizza place in their story, ask them what the name of the pizza place was. If they struggle to come up with an answer, you might follow up by asking them what the cross-streets where the pizza place is located — a question that they might not be able to answer either
As PLOS One, a peer-reviewed open access scientific journal published by the Public Library of Science notes:
“Liars give their planned responses to expected questions easily and quickly, but they need to fabricate plausible responses in the case of unexpected questions, and this yields an increase in the cognitive load. By contrast, truthful responses are not plagued by the side effects of the cognitive load as they are quite automatic and effortless for both expected and unexpected questions.”
Watch for an “answer delay”
When you ask a person a question. Listen for whether the person pauses before giving their response or, alternatively, jumps into their story. If the person pauses, that’s a good sign. It’s a sign that they are trying to maintain the normal rate of conversation. However, if the person jumps right into their response, that could be a sign they are lying.
As a University of Chicago researcher notes in a paper about pauses in deceptive speech:
“Our data suggest that the use of pauses correlates with more truthful than deceptive speech.”
Change in speech patterns
Especially if you know someone well, you should listen to changes in their speech patterns when they talk. Research shows that a person will frequently change their speech patterns when they are lying. This is why police investigators will frequently start their interrogations by asking straightforward questions like the suspect’s name and where they live — to get a baseline of the way the person normally talks.
People speak faster when they are telling the truth because telling the truth tells less effort, notes an article in Forbes. Additionally, liars tend to use fewer contractions when they speak and avoid referring to themselves (i.e., not using the word “I” or “we”) to distance themselves from the lie, according to research by Boise State University.
In a similar vein, PsychCentral reports:
“People who are lying tend to avoid using the words “I” or “me” when they are in the midst of a lie. Sometimes they will speak about themselves in the third person by saying things like, “this girl.” This is how they mentally distance themselves from the lie.”
Repeating questions before answering them
If a person repeats your question before answering it, they are showing a telltale sign of lying. According to an article in Entrepreneur, “While it’s natural to repeat part of a question, restating the entire question is unnecessary. Liars often repeat a question nearly verbatim as a stalling tactic to give themselves time to formulate an answer.”
“This gives that person time to cook up or devise a lie in anticipation and hope that you would believe him or her.”
Despite the pop-culture perception that body language reveals the liar, that may not be the case. Everyone is different and uses their body language differently in conversations. If you don’t know a person well, you may have trouble determining the ‘baseline’ — that is to say, how the person normally acts when they are telling the truth, and when they are lying. Police investigators get to ask baseline questions before getting down to the business, but you likely won’t have that luxury, if you suspect someone of lying.
Thus, a better way to uncover a liar is to listen to what they say, and how they say it. More specifically, to spot a liar, you should be prepared to ask the person questions that are geared towards uncovering inconsistencies in their story without directly challenging them.
Stay low-key, and hold your cards close to your chest. If the person is lying, casual questions about their story will quickly uncover their deception.