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5 Ways to Trip Up Liars

Don't believe the myths. These are the strategies the professionals use.

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Lie detection is serious business. While a lot of self-declared "body language experts" claim considerable skill and accuracy in detecting lies, the data say otherwise. Gaze avoidance, nose touching and squirming in a chair are indeed associated with lying, but also with general anxiety about being interviewed.

It is common to hear various claims about the power and importance of non-verbal language. Some even express it in percentages—you might be told that 93% of the information communicated in face-to-face meetings is non-verbal—most of it is through face and body movements and expressions, and around a third from voice quality and tones. The lowest percentage is always given to verbal communication: words that people actually say.

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This is, of course, patent nonsense: Why would anyone bother to learn a foreign language when they could be communicating with 90% efficiency nonverbally?

Max Atkinson, in his charming book Lend Me Your Ears, did the detective work behind these often repeated modern myths. The story goes like this: An American social psychologist, Albert Mehrabian, published a series of papers in 1960s researching the type of information (visual, verbal, or vocal) people give their preference to or find most useful when presented with messages where these types of information are incongruent. The nature of the task involved participants to detect and match feelings and attitudes of people shown in short clips. The presented messages were either consistent or inconsistent across three channels (the words did or did not match the nonverbal expressions). He found that when the information was incongruent, people trusted the nonverbal cues more. The analysis converted the frequency of information preference into numerical values: 38% of total information liking came from the vocal cues, 7% from verbal cues, and 55% from facial or visual cues.

This conclusion is quite different from exaggerated claims about universal laws of general communication. It is about judging specific attitudes in the presence of incongruent information. Atkinson asked Mehrabian, the author of original research, what his thoughts about this were, and his response was dismay and discomfort about being completely misquoted.

However, once this statistic was discovered and, unfortunately, misinterpreted, it has become an accepted truth repeated in magazines, training sessions, and corporate events. It makes, or should at least make, people very skeptical about many other claims surrounding body language and nonverbal communication.

Usually, lying is hard work—not the kind of "white-lie" lying intended to avoid social embarrassment and injured feelings, but serious lying with serious consequences, like claiming to do things you didn’t do, or to have been somewhere else when you were actually present at a significant important event.

Lying is difficult and demanding because you have to do several things at the same time:

  1. You have to get the story right. It must be plausible and consistent with all known (revealed and revealable) facts.
  2. You have to memorize the story well so that you are completely consistent in re-telling it many times, possibly even while being recorded.
  3. You have to scrutinize your interlocutors to ensure they are swallowing the bait.
  4. You have to memorize the script and also perform the emotions displayed need to match the story. This takes effort.
  5. In addition to remembering the script you have also to repress or suppress memories of the actual occurrence.

So it takes a good memory, acting skills, emotional intelligence, and sheer effort to tell a good and complicated lie many times convincingly and get away with it. That is why experts talk of "duping delight"—catching liars after the event when they become suddenly relieved and relaxed after their performance has ended.

Some experts in the field of lie detection published a study (Current Directions in Psychological Science, Volume 20) which utilized the idea of increased "cognitive load." They recommend some pretty nifty tricks to catch liars. Many of these are, of course, well known to the experts who also know how difficult it is to catch liars by simply observing them because the cues are faint, subtle and unreliable.

  1. Tell the Story in Reverse Order. It’s not that easy to do, but much easier if the story has not been fabricated. Sequences are not always well thought through by liars and the fumbling-bumbling can soon be spotted.
  2. Maintain Eye Contact in the Telling. Liars have to concentrate inwards. Other people are arresting and distracting. Their gaze often shifts to motionless objects as they "go inwards." Maintaining eye contact is very difficult if you are trying to remember your lines.
  3. Using Unanticipated Questions. Liars are sensitive to saying “I do not recall/remember/know." It sounds fishy. So they learn to give plausible answers. So ask questions they don’t expect and ask them more than once. If they lie about a meal, ask them what the other person ordered, who finished first, where their table was. Ask them about colors, smells, incidentals. Ask the same question again, phrased differently. Get them to draw a room and look for details.
  4. Devil’s Advocate. A lot of lies are about opinions and beliefs. Good liars are usually able to articulate a clear ideological position. So ask them to be the devil’s advocate, in effect providing their true opinions about an issue. Liars are faster at this and give richer, more complex answers than those who are telling the truth.
  5. Strategic Questioning. Most liars have to avoid and deny. They need a number of strategies to avoid having to admit or describe true events as well as denial strategies. Innocent people say more, fearing interviewers do not have all the facts; guilty people say less for fear of incrimination. So clever interviewers ask open and then closed questions. Innocent people are more likely to spontaneously offer facts than liars.

The use of these and other specific techniques depends on the situation, the offense, and the preferences of the lie detectors. The trouble with lying is that to be successful you have to be skillful, determined, and well prepared. It helps to have a weak conscience as well, because you don’t want to leak too much in the setting.

The trick for the lie detector is to make it difficult for the liar to continue with the lie. You have to be smart to outsmart the professional detectors who know how to catch the most polished of liars.

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at University College London and the Norwegian Business School.

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