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 …

5 Comments

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!!

Reply
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.

Reply
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?

Reply
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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Adolescence is all about the transition from childhood to adulthood. It can be a confusing time for everyone - not just for our teens but also for the adults who love them. 

Too often, the line between childhood and adulthood can be a blurry one. The expectations of adulthood can come charging at them, but without the freedoms, confidence, or capabilities that adulthood brings. They can feel with such depth and intensity, but without the adult wisdom or experience to make sense of those feelings. 

They’ll be okay, but it might feel wobbly for a while. In the meantime they will look to us for signs of safety and certainty. This doesn’t mean certainty that everything will always be okay - it won’t be - but certainty that they’ll get through, certainty that they are extraordinary, and needed, and that their will be a space and a place in the world that only they can fill.

We might not always feel that certainty. Some days we might ache, and wish we could make their world feel softer for a while. In those times, it will be less about what you do and more about who you are - being the one who can be with them without needing them to be different, the one who can handle any of their hurts or heartaches with gentle, certain hands, the one who can block out the world for a while by letting them rest in our care without needing them to be, or do, or give anything back in return.♥️
For our children, we start building the foundations for adolescence in their earliest years - the relationship we’ll have with them, who they are going to be, how they are going to be. One of the things we’ll want to build is their capacity to know their own minds and be brave enough to use it. This isn’t easy, even for adults, so the more practice we give them, the more they’ll be able to access their strong, brave, beautiful minds when they need to - when we aren’t there.

This means letting them have a say when we can, asking their opinions, and letting them disagree.

When kids and teens argue, they’re communicating. We need to listen, but the need won’t always be obvious. When littles argue because it’s spaghetti for dinner and ‘I hate spaghetti so much’ (even though last week and the 5 years before last week, spaghetti was their favourite), they might be expressing a need for sleep, power and influence, or independence. All are valid. When your teen argues because they want to do something you’ve said no to, the need might be to preserve their felt sense of inclusion with their tribe, or independence from you. Again, all valid. 

Of course, a valid need doesn’t mean it will always be met. Sometimes our needs might need to take priority to theirs, such as our need to keep them safe, or for them to learn that they can still be okay if everything doesn’t go their way, or that sometimes people will have conflicting needs that need to take priority. What’s important is letting them know we hear them and we get it.

It’s going to take time for kids to learn how to argue and express themselves respectfully. In the meantime, the words might be clumsy, loud, angry. This is when we need to hold on to ourselves, meet them where they are, let them know we hear them, and step into our leadership presence. We might give them what they need because it makes sense and because there isn’t enough reason not to. Sometimes, after giving them space to be heard we’ll need to stand our ground. Other times we might solve the problem collaboratively: This is what you want. This is what I want. Let’s talk about how we can we both get what we need.♥️
Anxiety will always tilt our focus to the risks, often at the expense of the very real rewards. It does this to keep us safe. We’re more likely to run into trouble if we miss the potential risks than if we miss the potential gains. 

This means that anxiety will swell just as much in reaction to a real life-threat, as it will to the things that might cause heartache (feels awful, but not life-threatening), but which will more likely come with great rewards. Wholehearted living means actively shifting our awareness to what we have to gain by taking a safe risk. 

Sometimes staying safe will be the exactly right thing to do, but sometimes we need to fight for that important or meaningful thing by hushing the noise of anxiety and moving bravely forward. 

When children or teens are on the edge of brave, but anxiety is pushing them back, ask, ‘But what would it be like if you could?’ ♥️

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Except I don’t do hungry me or tired me or intolerant me, as, you know … intolerably. Most of the time. Sometimes.
Growth doesn’t always announce itself in ways that feel safe or invited. Often, it can leave us exhausted and confused and with dirt in our pores from the fury of the battle. It is this way for all of us, our children too. 

The truth of it all is that we are all born with a profound and immense capacity to rise through challenges, changes and heartache. There is something else we are born with too, and it is the capacity to add softness, strength, and safety for each other when the movement towards growth feels too big. Not always by finding the answer, but by being it - just by being - safe, warm, vulnerable, real. As it turns out, sometimes, this is the richest source of growth for all of us.

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