Have you ever wished that you could tell when someone is lying to you? Whether you’re dealing with Mike the mechanic from the local repair shop, or watching one of our beloved politicians on prime time, learning how to ferret out deception is a deserving skill in a world very unlike Pleasantville. It is in this final post on How to Read People, that I go into detail about how you can detect lies.
How to Read People – Series
Human communication is an extremely complex exchange. While speaking, a person produces around 75-100 verbal and nonverbal cues per second. With the average person capable of only processing around 7 bits of information at one time, it’s no wonder that so many of us can be deceived!
There seems to be some limitation built into us whether by learning or by the design of our nervous systems, a limit that keeps our channel capacities in this general range – determined by George Miller author of The Magical Number Seven.
Because of our apparent limitation in conscious processing, the average Joe can only detect lies with about 50% accuracy. With the skills that you’ve learned in the previous post on reading people, it brings this level to around 65%. Through mastery of the techniques presented here, your ability can increase to 90% accuracy!
If you have any hesitation in ever meeting me, for fear that I’ll unveil your deepest secrets, let it be known that I haven’t yet reached this level. This is why I’ve created this site to help you and me. However, I am constantly practicing these skills, and have noticed a tremendous increase so far in my abilities to read others…so beware!
It is important to note that this article deals mainly with the principles behind lie detection. There are many sites/books that explain the techniques, however without a knowledge and a foundation in the principles you will not be successful.
The Principles of Lie Detection
The process of detecting lies is found in Behavior Analysis. For the purpose of lie detection, behavior analysis is the study of the verbal and nonverbal cues of truthfulness. Since lie detection is a subset of reading people, it follows the same 4 principles as discussed in the previous article:
- Establish a baseline behavior in your subject – make note of any deviation (this is THE KEY to lie detection!!)
- Recognize the related clusters (patterns) of deception
- Challenge and refine your assumptions through observation and questioning (continue w/ step 3 and 4 until you…)
- Make your decision
Unlike what you may at first suspect, you are in fact first studying what truth looks and sounds like, not deception. After establishing how they behave when they’re being truthful (the baseline), you’ll be able to recognize any departure from this ‘normal’ state – which may be a lie!
To understand how this works, let’s study an example. Assume you are dealing with a used-car salesman and you want to make sure that he’s not selling you a lemon. Begin by creating a framework of non-invasive questions to establish his normal, baseline behavior. Essentially you want to ask questions in which you’re sure he’ll tell the truth. It may go something like this:
YOU: Now, if I decide I want this car today, what are the steps I need to take?
HIM: explains to you…
YOU: So, how long have you been in business? (he’s unlikely to lie since this can be confirmed, if he does then you already have your answer)
HIM: goes on to tell about the history of the place
YOU: Since I’m in the area today, what restaurants do you recommend? What kind of food do they serve?
HIM: tells you about his favorite place…
If you noticed, none of these questions were invasive. Also, he has no incentive to lie about these things. While you are listening to him, pay attention to his voice, eyes, body language and facial expressions. Where does he look when he’s describing his favorite dish? What are his hands doing as he’s explaining? What’s the general pitch and tone of his voice? Is he leaning toward or away from you? Does he tend to overly gesticulate?
When you feel pretty confident that you recognize his baseline, you can now ask him the questions that you really want to know. These will be questions about the quality and history of the car, it’s maintenance record, etc. It’s at this point that you want to look for those patterns that aren’t in harmony with his baseline.
The Verbal Clusters of Deception
Verbal clusters are generally the least reliable of all the deception patterns. However, combined with the other clusters, they can improve detection accuracy. The main issue with verbal patterns is that they can be rehearsed, but this can be avoided through spontaneous questioning.
General Verbal Responses
- May take longer to start answering
- May answer to quickly or before the question is completed
- Often ask the questioner to repeat the question or they repeat it themselves
- Overly polite or apologetic dialog
- Persistent complaints
- Unnatural silence
The Behavioral Clusters of Deception
Deceptive people follow certain behavioral patterns. These can be viewed from the most apparent (macro-patterns) to the almost imperceptible (micro-patterns). Here’s the progression from largest to smallest:
- Macro Patterns –
- Increased discomfort and anxiety
- Unmerited anger towards you
- Persistent evasiveness
- Early signs of extreme rigidity followed by alternating stiffness and relaxation
- Hands, legs, objects put in front of body to form a barrier (folding arms, crossing legs, etc.)
- Feigned lack of interest
- Posture changes caused by topic changes
- Not facing you
- Distancing or leaning away from you
Gestures and Movements:
- Rubbing the forehead near the temple region
- Squeezing the face, rubbing the neck, or stroking the back of the head with the hand.
- Using fewer hand movements to illustrate their actions than usual
- Movement away from you
- Lip licking and hard swallowing
- Wringing hands
- Hiding the eyes
There are two psychological reasons behind the source of these macro patterns. The first is the brain’s inability to differentiate a real physical threat from a perceived one. This awakens the ‘fight or flight’ instinct and explains the hostility, anger, evasiveness or physical attempts to move away from you.
The second reason is that psychological stress increases anxiety so much that we cannot store it internally anymore. This leads to an external overflow, explaining the fidgeting, hand rubbing, sweating, lip licking, leg bouncing etc. When you see ‘stress overflow’ try asking yourself what it may mean. If it arose as a result of your questioning, then it may point to deception.
- Micro Patterns –
The micro patterns are all expressed on the face. And again there is a continuum from largest to smallest:
- Averting the eyes
- Focusing the eyes – some will try to stare down to show control. (A truthful person stares only half the time on average)
- Face whitening (indicates fear)
- Face flushing (indicates anger or shame)
In the field of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) they use the phenomenon of eye-accessing cues to help recognize patterns of thinking. By the direction of where the person’s eyes are looking, you can determine whether they are using vision, sound or kinesthetic (feeling) to trigger their thinking.
If this represents a person facing you then when they look up and to the left (your upper right) they’ll be accessing a visual memory. Up and to the right (again, your upper left) means that they’re visually constructing (imagining) something. To your right, they’re remembering a sound, to your left, they’re creating a sound. Down right, the person is accessing a bodily feeling or emotion. Down left (your down right), they are accessing inner dialog (talking to themselves).
If, for example, you were asking your child where they got the candybar, and they look to their ‘constructing’ side, then you can be sure they’re fabricating the story.
Keep in mind that this is reversed for left-dominant people (left handers). So before you can use this, be aware of which of their sides is the dominant one.
Clearly the most difficult to master, however if you do, this can give you a 90% success rate at detecting lies.
In the nineteen-sixties, renowned psychologist Paul Ekman began decoding the language of facial expressions. He organized them into a syntax of language which he termed “action units” – the set of all distinct muscular movements that the face could make. This totaled to only 46 individual movements, but in combination with each other, the face is capable of producing over 7000 unique expressions!
Luckily for us, we don’t have to memorize each one or its meaning, just be able to perceive the inconsistent “micro-expressions” that one makes during deceit. The FBI and CIA use Ekman’s methods to determine any deception from suspects during interrogations. And their ability to percieve it is amazing. This is due to the fact that some of the muscles involved in expressions are not under conscious control.
This is clearly the case when we feel strong emotions, but wish to supress or hide them. Those expressions of emotion appear on our faces, even if only for a fraction of a second. It probably explains our intuitive feelings that someone is being dishonest, because subconsciously we’re picking up on these expressions. These fleeting, almost imperceptible looks are what’s called “micro-expressions.”
When people lie, they try to hide the fact through altering their voluntary facial expressions (macro expressions) and body language to appear in harmony with their words. Because of this, the face will hold accurate as well as misleading information. Unfortunately, most people respond to the macro expressions and become decieved; However, a few keen observers can detect these micro expressions as well as other imperfections in the macro displays, and are correctly informed.
For example, distinguishing between a fake smile, one that can be performed at will, and a real smile, which is generated by the unconscious brain, comes down to awareness of the action units involved in a genuine smile. (Here’s a great link from the BBC which provides a test to determine if you can determine a genuine smile from a fake one through recognizing these micro expressions: http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/humanbody/mind/surveys/smiles/index.shtml
According to Ekman, deception will most always show up in the face as an inconsistency between the micro and macro expressions. Even though most people are not attuned to the recognition of micro expressions, most can learn to become sensitive to them.
For more information about this, training materials, and workshops check out Paul Ekman’s site
As you learn to establish the baseline behavior of honesty, recognize deception clusters that deviate from this baseline, and progressively refine your assumptions through questioning and observations, you will be well on your way to becoming an amazing lie detector. Remember to look at things as a whole. The more patterns you can discover that seem to point in one direction, the more accurate your detection will be.
I want to thank you for hanging in there! This series (long winded at times, I know) on How to Read People has hopefully been a help to you in your desire for personal growth and knowledge. Feel free to leave any comments of your experiences or experiments with these skills.