6 Ways to Spot a Liar

Think someone is trying to pull the wool over your eyes? Look for these telltale signs and see if you're dealing with a liar.  

By Diane Sewell Adapted from: Reader’s Digest Magazine, Canada, Sept. 2007

Lies occur between friends, teachers and students, husbands and wives, lawyers and clients—yet nobody wants to be caught.

“I’ve interviewed crooks more apt to admit to a major crime than to lying,” says Glenn Woods, a criminal profiler, formerly with the RCMP, who’s been studying deceptive behaviour for more than 10 years. “Everybody lies to some degree.”

Here’s how to separate those little white lies from the whoppers.

Listen to the Voices

Pay attention to voice changes like change in pitch or cracking; they may well indicate deceit.

“A person’s voice pitch tends to be a bit higher when they’re lying than when they’re telling the truth,” says Mary Ann Campbell, director of the Centre for Criminal Justice Studies and an assistant professor of psychology at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John. “It doesn’t mean they’re lying for sure, but there’s a higher likelihood.”

Watch Those Words

What about written material? Can we spot misleading behaviour in letters, emails and even resumés?

Professor David Skillicorn and his students in the School of Computing at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., created software—based on the deception model developed at the University of Texas at Austin—that can sniff out lies in emails and other written material by studying the frequency and kinds of words used. Skillicorn says liars tend to use fewer exclusive words such as but, or and except. They also tend to use more negative-emotion words such as ashamed, upset and embarrassed. “These are the words that send up red flags,” says Skillicorn. “It’s as though some part of the brain is feeling bad and this comes out in the writing.”

Look Past Shifty Eyes

While most people may interpret darting, unfocused eyes as a classic sign of lying, it’s vital to consider the context of the behaviour. For example, experienced poker players are careful not to make too much of eye “tells.” People usually look to the left or right when thinking about an answer. Someone not making eye contact should arouse suspicion, but eye contact, cautions Woods, can be a tricky evaluation tool: consider that a psychopath can look you in the eye and lie with ease. And in some cultures, it’s considered inappropriate to maintain eye contact.

Get Better at Body Language

Even though a high percentage of communication is thought to be non-verbal, no single part of the body—such as the eyes or hands—reveals the whole story when it comes to lying. Campbell says people who are lying often become more still: Hand gestures that normally accompany talking may occur with less frequency or intensity, and there may be fewer arm and leg movements. “The person becomes more focused on telling the lie,” explains Campbell, “so they get quieter in their body.”

Ask Questions—Quickly

If you suspect you’re being deceived, try this technique, which experts say can trip up a liar.

Try asking questions quickly—one after the other. “The initial lie is easy,” explains Kang Lee, director of the Institute of Child Study at the University of Toronto, and whose behavioural work with children can often be applied to adults. “The follow-up lie is more difficult. When you continue to ask questions and put people on the spot, it gets harder to maintain the lie.”

Check for Emotional “Leaks”

Micro-expressions that flit across the face often expose a person’s real thoughts. “If you were to watch people on videotape, frame by frame, you would see them showing their true emotion just before they show the fake expression designed to cover up the lie,” says Campbell.

But these ultra-brief facial movements, some only lasting a quarter of a second, aren’t easy to spot. Even professionals trained in lie detection can’t always isolate them. And deliberate liars tend to add other expressions, like smiling, to disguise a lie.

So here’s hoping that the next time someone lobs a lie your way, you’ll know just how to catch it.


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