5 Ways to ‘Out’ a Liar

People lie. From little white lies to the lies that scar the world, lying is a fact of life. It’s also a fact that most people are honest but from a glance, the liars (especially the masterful ones) and the truth tellers can be difficult to tell apart. Now there’s research that can guide us through. 

A popular misconception about lying is that there are verbal or nonverbal behaviours that are a dead giveaway that you’re being lied to. The disappointing news is that there aren’t.

Previous research has found that both experts and non-experts have a 50/50 chance at detecting a lie.

So – unless the nonverbal cue involves something less subtle, like a written admission tied to a balloon and passed to you mid-fib, your odds at deception detection are no better than flipping a coin.

Enter the scientists.

Researchers have found a way to increase our odds at detecting deception and it has little to do with nonverbal cues. Rather, it’s based on the fact that lying is hard work and to be successful at the con, liars have to be working on several things at once, all of which increase the cognitive load and lean hard on mental resources:

  • They have to be sure about their story, making sure nothing slips to gives them away. Everything they say has to line up. This is hard work when there’s nothing concrete (like, say, the truth) to anchor to.
  • They have to memorise their story and act as though it’s true. A decent lie needs the relevant emotion to make it believable. Contriving emotion is no easy task, though of course there’ll always be those who are masterful.
  • They have to constantly assess whether the listener is ‘buying’ their story and make adjustments where necessary – more emotion, less emotion or fatten the story with extra detail.
  • They have to continuously refer to their memory to make sure the story they’re telling now is the same as the version they told before.

Clearly, lying is hard work, drawing on a lot more mental resources than telling the truth. To lie is to perform and to perform takes effort, not the least of which is remembering the script and delivering a knockout performance.

Using this observation, the experts in the field have come up with ways to expose the liars in our midst by depleting their much needed mental resources, to the point where liars are unable to keep up the act:

  1. Ask questions from the assumption of guilt.

    Ask questions based on a presumption of guilt, rather than innocence, and actively interrupt denials. A recent study published in Human Communication Research demonstrated that this type of questioning could uncover a lie 97.8% of the time. This is compared to the 50% strike rate when this isn’t used.

    (Be careful though – if you’re going to do this, make sure you have good reason to suspect you’re being lied to. Understandably treating honest people as though they’re liars is likely to make them bristle.)

  2. Ask open then closed questions.

    . Closed questions can be answered with a quick ‘yes’ or ‘no’. People who are telling the truth want all the facts to be out there so in response to a closed question, they’ll often give more than a one word answer. Liars, on the other hand, will say less for fear of revealing their deception. For them, a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ will be plenty.

     

  3. Ask about the story in reverse.

    Rather than starting at the beginning and asking what came next, start at the end and ask what came before. It’s hard to tell a story in reverse at the best of times but when the facts are made up, it’s even harder. If the story you’re being told is a fib, you’ll soon see the slipping and sliding.

  4. Ask unexpected questions (about unexpected detail)

    Liars are as sensitive to the cliches (‘I don’t remember’/ ‘I don’t know’) as the rest of us so they’ll try to give reasonable answers. Often they’ll have worked out the more significant details in advance but the smaller ones won’t have been given a thought. Ask about those. If you suspect that ‘I was at a work dinner’ is a lie, ask: Who did you sit near? What did they eat? What did you talk about? Who was still there when you left? What did you eat? Where was the table? How many empty tables were there? The detail you ask about depends on the lie, but ask about smells, colours, cost etc. Ask the same questions more than once but in a different way.

  5. Maintain eye contact.

    Okay. This is kind of non-verbal but when used with the other tips, it will give your internal lie detector a boost. When people lie, they have to constantly draw on their memory to make sure what they’re saying lines up with what they’ve said before. The story has to be exactly the same as every version that came before it. This is hard and best done without the distraction of pesky humans who are trying to get to the truth. When somebody is lying, their gaze will often turn to motionless things that won’t distract them while they set to work trying to remember their script. Keeping eye contact makes this harder.  

Most people are honest. I really believe that. But there a few things nothing worse than the feeling you get when you think you’re being played. These strategies will help weed out the fakers, but use them wisely. We all know trust is the scaffold of any relationship and there’ll be damage to repair whenever the scaffold is given a shake – either from lying or from one too many false accusations of lying. Of course, if the scaffolding was shoddy to begin with, then shake away …

6 Comments

Kwrazy

Trying to coincide with a “to the grave” type liar is practically impossible. It requires a lot of standard bar lowering, and accepting of the unacceptable. Its impossible to work on anything. I’ve been married 20 years and not one issue has been resolved. So everytime a new issue arises, so does every issue previously rehashed to no avail. It gets exhausting being wrong all the fcking time. Even when you have proof of being right.

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Ashanti

Good information and ideas, thanks. It’s hard telling your family that one of you is a malicious liar if you have experienced it but they accept lame cover up excuses.

It’s difficult when you’ve not told what’s happened in the past with anyone else!!

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Sheila S

If I were to lie, I would give as few details as possible. Just like an attorney will tell a client, the less you say in court, the less the other side will have to try to trip you up. I always try to give as much detail as possible so people know I’m telling the truth. They will have plenty of details that they can confirm. Also, I have a problem with eye contact. This is present in all situations, but people don’t notice that. I wish people would take these studies with a grain of salt and not automatically believe that these “signs” are absolute truth that someone is lying. Not everyone is the same. I’m now very defensive because so many people use these studies and think I’m lying when I’m telling the truth. Then they think the defensiveness is further indication that I’m lying.

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Yann S

For almost 50 years, I have been a member of a well-known car club. I was always well regarded; I have got a number of awards for my work on behalf or the club. In 2019 I accused the President of lying and distorting the rules to achieve an illicit purpose. He has used the power of his office to muzzle the Board of Directors and numerous members of the Club, to prevent my communicating him or with them on the issue. Is there any remedy against such actions?

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Lin

Had experience with a compulsive liar. They will hold on to their lie, even if you present the facts. In their mind, it’s more about them controlling their own world of fantasy that they live in, rather than admitting the truth.

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We teach our kids to respect adults and other children, and they should – respect is an important part of growing up to be a pretty great human. There’s something else though that’s even more important – teaching them to respect themselves first. 

We can’t stop difficult people coming into their lives. They might be teachers, coaches, peers, and eventually, colleagues, or perhaps people connected to the people who love them. What we can do though is give our kids independence of mind and permission to recognise that person and their behaviour as unacceptable to them. We can teach our kids that being kind and respectful doesn’t necessarily mean accepting someone’s behaviour, beliefs or influence. 

The kindness and respect we teach our children to show to others should never be used against them by those broken others who might do harm. We have to recognise as adults that the words and attitudes directed to our children can be just as damaging as anything physical. 

If the behaviour is from an adult, it’s up to us to guard our child’s safe space in the world even harder. That might be by withdrawing support for the adult, using our own voice with the adult to elevate our child’s, asking our child what they need and how we can help, helping them find their voice, withdrawing them from the environment. 

Of course there will be times our children do or say things that aren’t okay, but this never makes it okay for any adult in your child’s life to treat them in a way that leads them to feeling ‘less than’.

Sometimes the difficult person will be a peer. There is no ‘one certain way’ to deal with this. Sometimes it will involve mediation, role playing responses, clarifying the other child’s behaviour, asking for support from other adults in the environment, or letting go of the friendship.

Learning that it’s okay to let go of relationships is such an important part of full living. Too often we hold on to people who don’t deserve us. Not everyone who comes into our lives is meant to stay and if we can help our children start to think about this when they’re young, they’ll be so much more empowered and deliberate in their relationships when they’re older.♥️
When we are angry, there will always be another emotion underneath it. It is this way for all of us. 

Anger itself is a valid emotion so it’s important not to dismiss it. Emotion is e-motion - energy in motion. It has to find a way out, which is why telling an angry child to calm down or to keep their bodies still will only make things worse for them. They might comply, but their bodies will still be in a state of distress. 

Often, beneath an angry child is an anxious one needing our help. It’s the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. As with all emotions, anger has a job to do - to help us to safety through movement, or to recruit support, or to give us the physical resources to meet a need or to change something that needs changing. It doesn’t mean it does the job well, because an angry brain means the feeling brain has the baton, while the thinking brain sits out for a while. What it means is that there is a valid need there and this young person is doing their very best to meet it, given their available resources in the moment or their developmental stage. 

Children need the same thing we all need when we’re feeling fierce - to be seen,  heard, and supported; to find a way to get the energy out, either with words or movement. Not to be shut down or ‘fixed’. 

Our job isn’t to stop their anger, but to help them find ways to feel it and express it in ways that don’t do damage. This will take lots of experience, and lots of time - and that’s okay.♥️
The SCCR Online Conference 2021 is a wonderful initiative by @sccrcentre (Scottish Centre for Conflict Resolution) which will explore ’The Power of Reconnection’. I’ve been working with SCCR for many years. They do incredible work to build relationships between young people and the important adults around them, and I’m excited to be working with them again as part of this conference.

More than ever, relationships matter. They heal, provide a buffer against stress, and make the world feel a little softer and safer for our young people. Building meaningful connections can take time, and even the strongest relationships can feel the effects of disconnection from time to time. As part of this free webinar, I’ll be talking about the power of attachment relationships, and ways to build relationships with the children and teens in your life that protect, strengthen, and heal. 

The workshop will be on Monday 11 October at 7pm Brisbane, Australia time (10am Scotland time). The link to register is in my story.
There are many things that can send a nervous system into distress. These can include physiological (tired, hungry, unwell), sensory overload/ underload, real or perceived threat (anxiety), stressed resources (having to share, pay attention, learn new things, putting a lid on what they really think or want - the things that can send any of us to the end of ourselves).

Most of the time it’s developmental - the grown up brain is being built and still has a way to go. Like all beautiful, strong, important things, brains take time to build. The part of the brain that has a heavy hand in regulation launches into its big developmental window when kids are about 6 years old. It won’t be fully done developing until mid-late 20s. This is a great thing - it means we have a wide window of influence, and there is no hurry.

Like any building work, on the way to completion things will get messy sometimes - and that’s okay. It’s not a reflection of your young one and it’s not a reflection of your parenting. It’s a reflection of a brain in the midst of a build. It’s wondrous and fascinating and frustrating and maddening - it’s all the things.

The messy times are part of their development, not glitches in it. They are how it’s meant to be. They are important opportunities for us to influence their growth. It’s just how it happens. We have to be careful not to judge our children or ourselves because of these messy times, or let the judgement of others fill the space where love, curiosity, and gentle guidance should be. For sure, some days this will be easy, and some days it will feel harder - like splitting an atom with an axe kind of hard.

Their growth will always be best nurtured in the calm, loving space beside us. It won’t happen through punishment, ever. Consequences have a place if they make sense and are delivered in a way that doesn’t shame or separate them from us, either physically or emotionally. The best ‘consequence’ is the conversation with you in a space that is held by your warm loving strong presence, in a way that makes it safe for both of you to be curious, explore options, and understand what happened.♥️
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#mindfulparenting #positiveparenting #parenting
When children are struggling to physically control their bodies, we support them in ways that strengthen. If they’re struggling to write, for example, we don’t punish or shame them. We guide them and show them by doing ‘with’. We also lift them up, ‘I know you can do this. Keep going. You’re getting better and better.’ We also don’t wait for perfection. ‘You wrote a number 4! Nice work you!’ We sit with and do with, over and over. We also give them a break when they get frustrated or upset.

It’s the same for behaviour. Big behaviour comes from big feelings or attempts to meet valid needs. (And all needs are valid.) It is this way for all of us. When we’re upset or angry, the last thing we need is for someone to tell us we can’t be, or to lecture or shame us. Kids are the same.

With kids and teens though, there can be a sense that we need to ‘do’ something in response to big behaviour, so we lay down punishments or consequences with a view to teaching a lesson.

But - unless the consequences make sense (punishments never do), they risk teaching lessons we don’t want them to learn:
- that the environment is fragile and won’t tolerate mistakes. 
- that secrecy and lies are a safer option than coming to us. 
- shut down. They put a lid on expressing big feelings. The feelings will still be there, but they aren’t getting the vital guidance from us on how to calm them (through co-regulation). The risk is that they will eventually call on unhealthy ways to calm the fierce stress neurobiology that comes with big feelings.

Consequences have to make sense. Maybe it’s to repair or reconnect. Discipline has to teach. It’s not about what we do to them but about what we nurture within them. Is that trust and the capacity to learn and grow? Or is it fear or shame.

Often the only response that’s needed is a loving conversation with us. ‘What happened?’ ‘What were you hoping would happen?’ ‘What did you need that you didn’t get?’ What can you do differently next time?’ ‘How can you put things right?’ Because if discipline is about learning, the most powerful consequence is the strong, loving conversation with us that lights their way and speaks softly to the safety of us.♥️

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