Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


To Catch a Liar, Ask the Right Question

A sophisticated technique, with some risks.

I wanted to believe my kids when they told me what they did or who they were with. But sometimes I suspected that they were not being completely honest. Like many adults, teenagers tell the truth when they know people would approve of their activities, and become evasive or even outright lie when they know people would disapprove.

Fortunately, most of the time, most if us tell the truth. The time to worry is when people become evasive or deceptive, because they know they have done something wrong.

A Volatile Conundrum is a sophisticated technique that puts liars in a position wherein they are forced to make snap decisions. Truthful people have little difficulty handling Volatile Conundrums. But the technique allows parents, for example, to test the truthfulness of teens without their kids knowing their veracity is being tested. The beauty is that the questioner is not put in the awkward position of calling someone a liar or even suggesting that they are suspected of being less that truthful. Accusing people of lying, or even suggesting that they've been deceptive, can damage a relationship, especially if the person actually did tell the truth.

I typically used this technique with my kids when I lacked sufficient indicators of deception to make direct accusations, but had a gut feeling that they were not telling me the whole truth. Here's an example:

I wanted to know what my son did the previous evening. But when I asked him, his answer was tentative and evasive, so I presented him with a Volatile Conundrum.

Me: Where did you go last night?

Him: I just hung out with the guys.

Me: What did you guys do?

Him: Ah…we went to see a James Bond movie and then we just hung out at Mark’s house.

Me: What time did the movie start?

Him: Around 7.

Me: That’s interesting. I was listening to the police scanner at about 8 o’clock last night and heard that someone pulled the fire alarm at the theater. The police and firefighters evacuated the theater and when they discovered that there was no fire, they let everyone back in, I would have been pretty angry if I were watching a movie and had to leave half-way through.

If my son did not go to the movie as he claimed, he faced a Volatile Conundrum, and had to make a snap decision. Does he acknowledge that the fire alarm went off, or does he dispute the fact? If he acknowledges that the fire alarm went off and, in reality, it did not, he will be caught in a lie. If he disputes the fact that the alarm went off and, in reality, it did, he will be caught in a lie. Only the truthful person would know for sure if the fire alarm went off. This is quite a Volatile Conundrum for a teen to face. Let’s return to my conversation and see if he was lying or not:

Me: . . . I would have been pretty angry if I were watching a movie and had to leave half-way through.

Him: What? (Inquisitive Look) There was no fire alarm.

Me: Oh, maybe I heard it wrong. I wasn’t really paying attention. So, what are you up to today? (Escape clause)

Escape Clause

Based on my son’s response and nonverbal cues, I determined that he was telling the truth. Since I did not want him to know that I doubted his veracity, I employed the Escape Clause, “Oh, maybe I heard it wrong,” to refocus the conversation. Then, unless I told my son what I had done, he would never have known that I had tested his veracity.

The following exchange illustrates how my son might have responded had he been lying.

Me: . . . I would have been pretty angry if I were watching a movie and had to leave half-way through.

Him: Ah…it didn’t bother me. I had to go to the bathroom anyway.

His acknowledgement that the fire alarm went off and the theater was evacuated clearly demonstrated that my son was lying about his night out. At his point, I would be faced with a dilemma of my own: Do I immediately confront him about his deception or do I let some time pass first?

My first reaction would have been to call him a liar on the spot. This would have been personally satisfying but nonproductive, for several reasons:

  1. I would have revealed the Volatile Conundrum technique making it difficult to use it on future occasions.
  2. My son could have gone on the offensive and accused me of having used deception to trick him.
  3. My son would have probably engaged his defense mechanisms making the truth more difficult to discover.

The best option is to call the liar out at a later time. At least, I would have known that he was lying and was probably doing something that I would not have approved. From that point on, I would have begun monitoring his activities very closely to learn what he was really up to.

The Volatile Conundrum is a powerful technique to test veracity and should be used sparingly so as not to alert others to the technique. Volatile Conundrums should be carefully designed to ensure the possible deceiver faces a true dilemmas if they are lying. More important, all Volatile Conundrums should have escape clauses in the event the person did tell the truth. Escape clauses allow you hopefully to use this technique undetected and prevent a potential loss of trust.

Additional techniques to test the veracity of your kids can be found in Fibs to Facts: A Parental Guide to Effective Communication.

More from Jack Schafer Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today