The truth: We’re not good at catching lies. In fact, according to research at Brigham Young University, we perceive a lie only about 54% of the time. No wonder we’re so often trying to figure out how to know if someone is lying. Often we look for exaggerated cues on the outside, but research indicates that looking for more subtle clues–and noticing what’s going on inside yourself—might be a more accurate way to pinpoint deception.
Common signs of lying
When children fib, it’s so obvious it’s almost laughable. Often they sway from side to side, talk fast, add details on the fly or twist the hem of a garment. Unschooled in the art of deception, children are painfully obvious in their lies. But the clues that kids give when lying are also part of the most popular lists for how adults spot liars. From behavior analysts to body language experts to federal agents skilled in the science of deception detection, popular convention suggests a slew of ways to identify whether or not a person is feeding you a pack of untruths, including:
- Avoidance of the word I
- Having an answer for everything
- Microexpressions (facial expressions lasting a fraction of a second)
- A sense of unease
- Too much detail
- Looking up to the right
- Touching the mouth
- Throat clearing and swallowing
- Hand-to-face activity
- Grooming gestures
Here’s the problem: These clues aren’t always accurate. For example, a 2012 study found that people look up to the right equally often when telling the truth. Is there a more accurate way to assess deception? Perhaps. It might have to do with getting into the liar’s world—and exacerbating it.
How to get a liar to show you the truth
Although the ideas outlined above are popular favorites, not everyone agrees that spotting a liar is that easy. In a terrific op-ed on Time.com, science-based blogger Eric Barker offers a different approach to detecting liars. He suggests that the cognitive load (how hard you have to think) that lying requires changes liars’ outward cues. Referencing research outcomes of studies about deception, Barker outlines some interesting facts. Rather than do more of these things when they deceive, liars actually do less:
- Gesture (specifically men)
And as liars’ thought process takes its toll, they use more pauses, too. If you really want to catch a rat, research suggests, increase a liar’s cognitive load. In other words, Barker recommends making the deceiver think harder so that the cues of deception are amplified. Ways to do this include these police detective techniques:
- Ask a liar to tell his/her story backward
- Ask open-ended questions to encourage as much detail as possible
- Minimize your interruptions, even using silent pauses to encourage a liar to continue
Use your internal feedback to know if someone is lying
Increasing a liar’s cognitive load helps reveal the truth, but the opposite seems to hold for those on the receiving end. Forensic psychologist Dr Leanne ten Brinke and her team at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, discovered that while our instincts for identifying liars are very strong, our cognitive minds are not. The study, published in Psychological Science, states that “findings in forensic psychology, neuroscience, and primatology suggest that lies can be accurately detected when less-conscious mental processes (as opposed to more-conscious mental processes) are used.” What their research revealed is that more indirect measures (eg, intuitive unconscious language associations) can be consistently more accurate than the direct measures of cognitive analysis.
Perhaps the best way to assess deception is to put these approaches together into a single framework. It’s good to be cognitively aware of clues that someone seems shifty, untrustworthy or less than honest. It’s also good to be aware of the more subtle feedback your body or mind sends you. In a world where people are more likely to lie when sending texts than talking in person (and take 10% longer to reply to a text when they are lying); when most people perceive that women lie less than men; and where men tend to lie to benefit themselves while women tend to lie to benefit others, there will always be moments of both accuracy and inaccuracy in your lie-detection program.
It’s impossible to discover a formula for how to know if someone is lying 100% of the time. A better process might be to be mindfully aware, realistically skeptical and intentionally focused on picking up on the cues being sent from both external and internal sources so that you have 100% percent of your mind working on the problem in every moment.