If you’re suspicious that someone isn’t telling the truth, can you look the person in the eyes and tell that they’re lying? Well, let’s try. Here are what might be three facts about lying. Can you tell which one (if any) is a lie?
- The average person hears between 10 and 200 lies per day.
- Strangers lie to each other three times within the first 10 minutes of meeting, on average.
- College students lie to their mothers in one-fifth of all interactions.
According to Pamela Meyer, author of the book Liespotting and presenter of a TED Talk with more than 16 million views, the answer is: They’re all true. So if we’re being lied to that often, how can we do a better job of catching the prevaricators we interact with?
There are behaviors and tells that should make you wonder whether the person you’re dealing with is being truthful. Here are 10 things to look for, culled from the advice of Meyer and other experts, and presented in increasing order of reliability.
We tend to think that liars are the ones who can’t keep their stories straight, but we’ll list this so-called tell first, and thus least reliable, because there are other explanations for changing stories. It’s simply too easy, and deceptive, to rely on inconsistency as a proxy for deceit.
In fact, most truthful people, when they’re asked to retell a story several times, will remember additional details each time–which means the stories they tell will change. One theory for this is that when you think you remember a past event, you’re actually remembering the last time you remembered it.
2. Suspicious expressions
There are some tells that can suggest lack of veracity: blushing, blinking, flared nostrils, fake smiles. Notice them, remember them, pay attention. However, don’t read too much into them
Because while they may be indications, there is simply too much room for false positives to go by expressions alone. It’s really difficult even for trained, experienced interrogators to pick out a liar on the basis of facial expressions.
3. Repeating the question
Maybe they’re ensuring they heard you correctly. Or maybe they’re stalling for time, or else trying to unpack what you’ve asked, and figure out how much you know. If they’re doing this, note it, and weigh it with some of the others on the list.
4. Unnecessary superlatives
Absolutely. Tremendous. Literally. Yes, there are times when these words are appropriate, but they’re the exception to the rule. People who insist on peppering their speech with them might be trying to bolster their argument or distract you.
5. A desire to shut everything down
They don’t want to talk, or they want to move the conversation along quickly to another subject. Is that because you’re that boring a conversationalist–or perhaps they’re eager to move out of the zone of deception into a safer space?
Again, this isn’t a foolproof tell, but it’s another piece of evidence to consider as you weigh the likelihood that you’re being told something untruthful.
6. Qualifying language
People who are being honest sometimes like to remind you that people in general aren’t always honest. How? By using phrases like, “In all candor” or “If I’m being completely truthful” or “If I had to swear on a stack of Bibles … ”
Be on the lookout for these. Think of it like that old saw “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.” Here, if you have to emphasize that you’re telling the truth, you might well be lying.
7. Flourishes in the word no
As my colleague Justin Bariso points out, key tells could be when people “say no and look in a different direction,” “say no and close their eyes,” “say no after hesitating,” “say noooooooo, stretched over a long period of time,” or “say no in a singsong manner.”
Trick: Force them to say the word no to an oblique or open-ended question. “Did you file a false expense report?” as opposed to “I’m curious about the accuracy of our expense reports. Do you have any insight into that?”
8. Failing to remember details upon retelling
This seems like No. 1 above, but it’s different: It’s the case in which the person talking doesn’t add new details that contradict him- or herself, but also can’t recall what he or she previously said.
A trick (also from Bariso’s interview of former FBI counterintelligence agent LaRae Quy): Ask them to tell the story backward. It’s simply harder to keep details straight if you’re asking them to relate a madeup story in a different order than they learned it.
9. Inappropriate emotions
You’re looking here for incongruity: terrible news–but a joking attitude. Supposedly good news–but overly tempered enthusiasm.
It’s tricky in some cases–but Meyer uses the gruesome video examples of two mothers, one whose daughter was murdered, and the other who murdered her children, to show how this works. The first woman’s emotion is raw, angry, undiluted. The second woman, who is trying to hide a terrible secret, can’t pull it off–she doesn’t actually know how a victim of such a gruesome crime would act because it’s not imaginable.
Consider this one a bonus–a tell that lets you know when someone holds you in contempt but attempts to continue the conversation anyway.
Contempt doesn’t mean necessarily that someone is lying, but it does mean that you should consider the conversation over. Because contempt is a combination of anger and moral superiority, it’s almost impossible to develop rapport with someone who feels that way. Meyer says there is a reliable tell:
It’s marked by one lip corner pulled up and in. It’s the only asymmetrical expression. And in the presence of contempt, whether or not deception follows — and it doesn’t always follow — look the other way, go the other direction, reconsider the deal, say, “No, thank you. I’m not coming up for just one more nightcap. Thank you.”
Remember, these are all potential pieces of evidence. No one of them indicates for certain that somebody is lying, and it’s also possible to get false positives. As Meyer says, “Look, listen, probe, ask some hard questions, get out of that very comfortable mode of knowing, walk into curiosity mode, ask more questions, have a little dignity, [and] treat the person you’re talking to with rapport.”
Combine all that, and you’ll have a pretty good idea whether you’re being told the truth.