How To Know If They Are Lying To You
and how to respond if they do.
As Marc Palmer is sitting in the conference room, waiting for the graphic designer candidate to come to the job interview, he impatiently switches his gaze between the clock and the résumé on his desk. Clara Morrison, the woman he’s waiting for, applied for the position minutes before the deadline. But Marc is glad that she did — her CV looks very promising and he has high hopes for hiring her.
If only she was on time. Clara is already more than 20 minutes late and she hasn’t even called to say what happened. Marc is beginning to wonder whether she is going to show up at all… And if so, what kind of excuse is he going to hear?
He already suspects he’s going to have a hard time deciding whether to believe what she’s going to say. That is, provided that she comes. He isn’t aware of it, but deep down he wants to believe that Clara is honest. He’s been looking for a graphic designer way too long already — it is time he finally gets over with it.
As we will see, Marc is not alone in his trouble. Today, many of us feel powerless when comes to verifying information. At work, we are bombarded with data, reports and accounts. Then, as we come back home, we watch news and videos that we cannot possibly cross-check with facts. We hear personal stories from people who don’t always have an incentive to be honest.
If you wanted to verify each and every piece of information that enters your ear, you would need to spend hours and hours researching. It is theoretically possible — but the time it would consume makes it not feasible at all.
But there is an alternative way of navigating through the sea of information: learning to spot deceptive behaviour. Humans are social animals — and over the millennia we developed various non-verbal communication channels. These channels also convey information that we would prefer to keep to ourselves. What a lie-spotter does is simply learn to interpret that information.
Emotional grimaces on our faces that lasts just a fraction of a second. Seemingly meaningless head movements. Our postures that unconsciously illustrate our states of mind. The way we structure sentences and pitch our voice.
These are all rich sources of information about true human intents, feelings and motivations. And it is virtually impossible for anyone to control all those channels. No matter how much a liar rehearses her fabricated story beforehand, her body or voice will almost surely give out some kind of a hint that what she says is not aligned with the truth.
You can train yourself to spot such hints, too — but first, you need to know what to look for. And that’s what this article is for.
The thing is… we all lie.
As Clara finally rushes into the conference room, she barely allows Marc to utter a hello. Before he can say anything, she starts explaining herself at a speed of light:
“Oh my God, I’m so sorry I’m late, but you’re not gonna believe what happened! I got up in the morning, a bit earlier than usual to make sure I get here on time. I was having my breakfast, but then — got interrupted by a phone call. My Mum wanted me to come and help cause she just got her new furniture delivered. And, quite honestly, it was not the best time for that! So I explained to her that I was going to this job interview today, finished my breakfast, walked out of the house, got in my car. Drove through town without any trouble. And as I stopped at the traffic lights just a few streets from here, some guy just literally drove into my back! I swear to God, it was not my fault — and if you ask me, I don’t even think that he was sober!”
Marc listens to her story patiently and, exactly as he anticipated, can’t make up his mind whether to believe her or not. But, in the end, Clara seems really disturbed and sorry. Once she calms down a bit and they start talking about her experience and the job, she also comes across as very professional. Gradually, the fact that she was so late and the story she told to explain herself fades away. After she presents her portfolio, Marc decides to offer her the position.
Lying is more prevalent in everyday life than we tend to think. Obviously, some of the lies are not that harmful — for example, when you choose to compliment your boyfriend’s new hairstyle or tell your boss that the lunch he invited you for was absolutely delicious. These are white lies and, according to social scientists, they are a part of our social adaptation. They serve us to mitigate conflicts, maintain relationships and, in general — help us fit into our social context.
“Lying is an attempt to (…) connect our wishes and our fantasies about who we wish we were, how we wish we could be with what we’re really like. We are against lying, but we are covertly for it.” — Pamela Meyer
Still, if you look at some stats regarding deception, they are pretty shocking:
- Numerous researchers agree that most people encounter up to 200 lies a day.
- According to Robert Feldman, strangers, on average, lie to each other 3 times in the first 10 minutes of their interaction.
- An average adult is able to tell truth from falsehood 54% of the time — which is hardly better than blind guessing.
- One study of 2.6 million resumés concluded that 44% of them contained some sort of truth-altering or plain lies.
It seems like lying is an inseparable part of life — and not just the human one. Nature knows a lot of examples of deception — from plants such as carrion flower emitting an odour of rotting flesh to attract insects, to the famous gorilla Koko, who blamed her pet kitten for ripping a sink out of the wall.
In the natural world, lying is an evolutionary adaption which helps plants and animals to survive. Generally, the bigger the brain neocortex of an animal species, the more sophisticated the deception. But in the human world of business and politics, we are often taking our lies way farther than just to ensure our survival. Usually, liars want to gain something at a cost of another. And this type of deception can lead to dangerous places, causing real harm.
The cost of being deceived
As Clara starts working for the company, things soon get complicated. When her first month comes to an end, Marc has already collected a pile of complaints from other employees about her. Many could be just dismissed as personal conflicts — but some suggest that she might be causing the business some serious losses. Reportedly, she misses deadlines, delivers only half of the work and creates designs that are way below her portfolio standard.
Finally, during a networking event, Marc runs into his friend Monica, a sales representative of the company Clara worked for before she joined his team. As he mentions that he recently hired Clara as a graphic designer, Monica’s eyes open wide in surprise. Graphic designer? How come? I’m pretty sure that when she worked with us, she was an executive assistant dealing with paperwork and scheduling meetings. I never knew she had a background in graphic design.
As it soon turns out — she doesn’t. After meeting Monica, Marc finally decides to confront Clara in the office. She breaks down during their conversation and admits that all the graphic design experience on her résumé is made up, and the portfolio she presented belonged to her friend. She also confesses that the day she was late for the interview, she had overslept — she was just too embarrassed to admit it. But, worst of all, Marc discovers that due to her incompetence and delays, the company has already lost an important client.
It is estimated that the yearly cost of deceit to US businesses is $997 billion. That’s roughly 7 percent of the country’s annual revenue. Imagine how this money could be spent if the business decision makers were able to spot signs of deception before signing a mendacious deal or investing their capital into a near-bankrupt company.
Yet, the financial costs of untruthful behaviour are not even the most serious ones. In 2008, a Chinese food producer Sanlu Group was found to have concealed the fact that their infant milk formula (and other food materials) was adulterated with melamine. By that time, their products were already on the market and consumed by hundreds of thousands of people. The victims of that large-scale deception included 6 babies dying, 54,000 being hospitalized and a total of 300,000 people being affected in some way.
Although the milk scandal probably couldn’t have been avoided by the consumers developing their deception-spotting skills, this story shows us something important: our society is founded on trust. When we put our money in the bank, we assume it is safe there. Similarly, when we buy a food product we believe it is good to eat since it was allowed on the market. By default, we consider information that reaches us to be true. It requires conscious and critical observation to open ourselves to the possibility that we could be lied to.
“The truth bias continues. Without it, our civilisation could not survive. Try to conceive of a society in which everyone views everyone else with suspicion. How could any normal human transactions and activities take place?” — Pamela Meyer
Taking how complex the world we live in is, we now need trust more than ever to simply keep things going. So it is disturbing to realise how much deceit we are being exposed to every day. But it is also crucial that we do whatever we can to support the culture of trust. The first step is to be able to identify untruthful behaviour and prevent ourselves from getting into a deal or situation that may harm us.
Imagine that, at the time of the interview, Marc was a trained lie-spotter and could notice some obvious signals that Clara was not being honest with him. Imagine that he was able to transcend his comfortable bubble of truth bias and become receptive to what was really happening — rather than seeing what he wanted to see. This would certainly save him a lot of trouble that Clara’s flawed work brought into the company.
As Pamela Meyer puts it, lying is a cooperative act. This implies that you cannot be a victim of deception unless you consciously or unconsciously agree to it — for example, by ignoring some obvious symptoms of deceit.
And it becomes much harder to ignore them once you know what to look for.
How to spot a liar
Trained lie-spotters reportedly get to the truth in 90% of their interactions. That’s a significant improvement from the 54% score of an average adult that I mentioned earlier. It also means that identifying deception is a skill you can learn. And — considering Marc’s story along with thousands of similar incidents — it seems like quite a useful skill to have.
The examples below are sourced from Pamela Meyer’s work, but the list is by no means exhaustive. If you find this topic interesting, I recommend you to read her book Liespotting in entirety or go to the resource page she created for her work online.
The two major communication channels where you can spot signs of deception are speech and body language (including facial expressions). Remember not to consider any of them to be proofs that somebody is lying to you. Rather, try to look at them as red flags in another’s behaviour. When you spot those red flags in clusters and they are combined with your gut feeling that something’s not right — you probably have a reason to be concerned. In the next section, I will talk more about how you can respond to this kind of situation.
But first, let’s see what signals of deception you should look for in the first place.
The way a person picks words and constructs sentences can say a lot about their intentions. Here are some speech patterns that may suggest someone is not being entirely honest with you.
- Non-contracted denial. People who are over-determined in their denial are likely to use more formal language. Instead of simply saying “I didn’t do it” they may utter a more definite: “I did not do that.”
- Too many irrelevant details. Remember when Clara was telling the story about why she was late for the interview? Before she got to what was supposedly the main reason, she described the morning call with her Mom, which turned out to be completely irrelevant. Many liars unconsciously do that — they explore the part of their story which is true, and therefore easier to tell. Only then they briefly complete their tale with some imaginary facts.
- Distancing language. Bill Clinton is famous for using this one. When publicly denying his affair with Monica Lewinsky, instead of using her name, he repeatedly referred to her as “that woman”.
- Meticulously following the chronological order of events. Scientists have proven that when a person is telling a genuine story, they are likely to jump around the facts, picking the ones that are most emotional first — and then “going back in time” to fill in the details. For someone who is trying to deceive you, it is easier to tell a fabricated story chronologically. Again, Clara is guilty of that.
- Qualifying statements and religious references. Have you noticed someone overusing phrases like “If you really think about it…” or “I swear to God”? This may be a sign that they are unconsciously trying to distance themselves from the false statements they are uttering.
Our bodies continuously translate our emotions and intent into gestures, postures and facial expressions. Most of that happens unconsciously and is almost impossible to control. That’s why body language is such a precious source of information in lie-spotting.
- Shaking head “no” while trying to prove something. Many liars do it but are not aware of it. As a deceitful person tries to verbally emphasize that something is true, their head may at the same time signal the opposite. If you notice that, stay alert.
- The fake smile. Smile is one of the hardest expressions to fake and at the same time — one of the easiest to spot as a sign of deception. The secret is in the eyes. When one smiles genuinely, the muscles around their eyes contract and “smile”, too. With a fake smile, it is just the mouth that is shaped into a fabricated grimace.
- Too much eye-contact. The myth that liars don’t look you in the eye still persists. But, as it turns out, just the opposite is true. Liars tend to extend the duration of eye-contact with their interlocutor, as they believe this will help them come across as more authentic.
- Touching or covering the mouth. Do you know the “see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, speak no evil” monkeys? The one that covers its mouth does so in an imitation of an innate human gesture: covering the mouth in an attempt to stop the deceitful words from spilling out. You can see this especially in young children trying to cheat their parents. However, many adults never learn to control it either — and so, when lying, they may touch the area around their mouth more often than they normally would.
- Hand gestures. Or rather, the lack of them. Hands are considered one of the most expressive body parts. If you notice the lack of natural hand gesticulation, you may be interacting with someone who’s not being 100% honest.
How to respond when you think someone is lying to you?
As I said before, all those signals shouldn’t be treated as the ultimate proofs of deception. When you notice them, first respond simply with heightening your awareness. If then, in turn, you spot even more red flags suggesting that you may be facing a liar, then it is time to decide what to do next.
In certain circumstances, it could be enough to simply spot deception, without the need to verify the story in detail. This would probably have been the case for Marc. If he realised during the interview that Clara was not being honest, he would simply decide not to hire her. A strong conviction that she wasn’t telling the truth would have been enough — he probably wouldn’t care to know the details of her real story.
However, you may find yourself in a situation when you need to know beyond any doubt if the person you are interacting with is being truthful or not. It may also be important to know the facts, rather than just realising that you are being lied to. But how do you get to the truth? How can you push people to be honest with you?
According to Pamela Meyer, the latter is just not possible. Here’s what she has to say on that:
“Back an opponent into a corner, and he’ll almost always lie to you. Find a way to connect with him and he’s far likelier to tell you the truth. Trust and truthfulness can’t be forced; they can only be fostered.”
Your best shot at getting to the truth is creating conditions for trust. The vast majority of people prefer to tell the truth, as it simply feels more comfortable than manufacturing lies. But this applies only when they believe that it is safe for them to be honest.
In other words: with some exceptions, people only lie when being honest feels too threatening.
When you acknowledge this, here is a handful of tips you may want to use to create an atmosphere of trust and connection. When you use them consistently, they will prompt other people to be more truthful while interacting with you.
Encourage face-to-face meetings as much as possible.
Some studies show that communicating via phone or video calls increases the chances of lying. And it makes perfect sense: when people are not in the direct presence of another, they feel more confident altering facts as their body language can easily remain hidden. So when you make an effort to meet your business partners or conduct a job interview in person, you encourage honesty.
If you really need to communicate remotely, try at least to make important agreements over email rather than phone. It has been proved that people are less likely to lie when they know their words are recorded in writing.
Take charge of the environment.
Whenever possible, try to arrange a meeting in an environment where both you and the person you’re meeting can feel at ease. Warm and welcoming space and light encourage relaxation and therefore raise the chances that your partner will tell you what you need to know, without hiding relevant details. Also, make sure that you can see them well and observe their body language.
State clearly that you expect the interaction to be honest.
People are less likely to lie when they know they are expected to be truthful. It is as simple as that. So before you dive into your important business meeting or negotiations, plainly state that you wish this exchange to be an honest one. This way, you will set the tone for the whole meeting. If you are still worried that someone may try to deceive you, you can mention that you are taking minutes from this meeting and will cross-check all the facts later on.
Be as honest as possible yourself.
This should go without saying, but if you are expecting others to tell the truth, you need to be honest yourself. Putting the moral aspect aside, sharing openly with your partner will naturally encourage them to do the same. By being vulnerable in front of another you signal it is safe for them to be that way with you.
Your interlocutors will be more likely to tell you the truth if they trust that you understand them. One of the most common reasons for deception is trying to hide one’s mistakes in an attempt to maintain a “flawless” reputation.
If, at the beginning of a conversation with your employee, you say: “I know it’s been a crazy week closing all those deals. I can’t even imagine how tired you must be after working so hard for so long!”, they will perceive you as an empathetic boss. This increases the chances of them sharing what they struggle with or what obstacles they encountered — rather than trying to pretend that everything is perfect.
Frame the interaction as cooperation, rather than competition.
When you are negotiating (and much of human interaction is some form of negotiation!), frame the outcome you want to arrive at as a win-win situation. Your partner shouldn’t feel like you are trying to gain something at their expense — or that they need to fight you in order to succeed. Whether you are discussing housework division with your spouse or negotiating salary with your employer, make it clear that you want to find a solution that suits both parties — not just you.
Ask open-ended questions.
This one is useful especially when you want to learn a story of how something happened, without being misinformed. The way you phrase your questions may determine how much you will learn. When you ask closed questions that can be answered with just yes or no, you may be closing the door to obtain valuable information. For example, when you ask: “Did you lock the safe before leaving the office last Friday?”, a person leaning towards dishonesty has a very easy job of deceiving you. Imagine if, instead, you asked: “Can you tell me what you did in the last hour before leaving the office on Friday night?”. Lying in response to the second question would be much more difficult.
Signal that you have information about your interlocutor that they didn’t share with you themselves.
In a situation when you strongly suspect that a person is lying, you may also want to play this card. Let your interlocutor know that the story they are telling you is not the only one you heard. You can do this, for example, by asking a question: “So I know that you and Sally went out to lunch together that day. Can you share with me what were you discussing?”. If that person intended to lie to you, they may now be wondering about how much you already know — and whether their fabricated story is compatible with the information you have.
I hope that what I shared with you here is useful and that you will now feel more empowered to encourage a culture of trust and honesty in your immediate environment. But whatever you do with these freshly-acquired lie-spotting skills, remember one thing: this art is not about being able to point a finger at somebody and exclaim: “Hey, I know you’re lying!”.
First of all, you cannot know it for sure unless that person decides to admit their deceit in front of you. But, most importantly, we’re not here to judge others — no matter how well we train ourselves in lie-spotting. If someone decides to lie, it most likely means that they believe it to be their best shot at handling the situation.
Consider it your personal challenge to assure them that they can be honest with you.
Note: This article is largely based on Pamela Meyer’s book Liespotting. I didn’t write it to promote that book and I am not benefiting financially from linking to it. I am mentioning this simply to give credit to Pamela Meyer for her work.