In today's post-truth, post-trust world, being able to tell when you're being sold a whopper is a pretty handy skill. Here’s a quick MT rundown of the most commonly encountered techniques for identifying liars, and how effective or otherwise they might be.
Every Poker player’s favourite, this involves looking for the unconscious movements and ‘tells’ we all make when we’re straying from the path of righteousness. So whether someone is pulling their eyelid, stroking their chin or covering their mouth, it’s supposed to be a sure sign they are telling porkies.
ESPECIALLY THE NOSE…
Thus it was that Bill Clinton’s touching of his nose when he denied his affair with Monica Lewinsky back in the day was taken as proof positive of his guilt.
A shifty character doesn’t hold your gaze, right? Wrong – in fact some studies show that liars maintain more eye contact than truthful people, perhaps because they do it on purpose. It’s fibbing 101.
BUT BEWARE OF FALSE POSITIVES
Not every liar has tics and for those that do, they are all different. One man’s guilty head scratching is another woman’s innocently-itchy scalp. Most studies on this have concluded that it helps if you already know the person in question pretty well.
An idea has emerged from the field of Neuro-Linguistic Programming that right handed people look up and to the right when they are accessing their memories (i.e. telling the truth) and up and to the left when they are using their imagination (i.e. lying). It’s the other way around for left handed people, so you better make sure you get that clear before you start. N.B. This theory is not borne out by experimental evidence.
STRANGE FACIAL EXPRESSIONS.
Paul Ekman of the University of California, the doyen of deception studies, created a stir in the noughties with his ‘microexpressions’ theory. This posited that, because liars have to deliberately compose their features to match their stories, fleeting microexpressions best spotted by computer analysis of video footage can give the game away. But attempts to reproduce his results have been patchy.
LOOK FOR THE PHYSIOLOGICAL SIGNS.
When you tell a lie, what does it feel like? Your heart beats faster, your palms get sweaty and you feel – and look – anxious. That’s certainly what medical student John Augustus Larson thought when he invented the polygraph or lie detector back in 1921. Using heart rate, blood pressure and the Galvanic Skin Response to measure sweating, polygraphs claim to be able to achieve good results in the hands of a skilled operator.
LISTEN TO WHAT THEY SAY.
If you want to spot a liar the clues are in what they say rather than what they do - a few telling words are worth a thousand cheap gestures
To expose a lie you have to catch the liar in the act, finding the holes in their story, tripping them up with logic to expose inconsistencies in their stories. Ask them to describe their version of events in reverse order, for example, and probe them on small irrelevant details about locations, or journeys – apparently irrelevant questions which are hard to anticipate in advance.
ASK THE RIGHT QUESTIONS.
Both the police and the judicial services favour open questions and well-structured interviews to check on the verisimilitude of statements.
ESPECIALLY THE KILLER QUESTION...
A good way to start is to simply ask people how honest they are straight away – it relies on the well-known psychological principle of ‘priming’. Very few will answer ‘Not very’ to this question, and having thus assumed the psychological mantle of honesty even a liar will find it hard to be less than candid after that.
VOICE PATTERN ANALYSIS.
A less intrusive and more up to date version of the lie-detector, voice analysis is popular with many insurance companies. There are commercially available voice pattern analysis systems that claim to be able, if not to spot liars exactly, then at least to be able to say with some certainty when someone is telling the truth.
The key is consistency or otherwise of pitch when speaking, apparently. While this is one of the more effective technological solutions, the kit is proprietary, expensive and of limited use in individual face-to-face situations.
IT TAKES ONE TO KNOW ONE.
There is one other point that can work in your favour, and that is being an accomplished liar yourself. Many studies – including a fairly recent one by Dr Geoffrey Bird at UCL - have found that practised liars are well above average in their ability to spot others in the act. Probably because they are familiar with the acts of fabrication.
12 ways to spot a liar
Published: 03 Apr 2018
Last Updated: 03 Apr 2018
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