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 …

9 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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Steph

Wow…same except only 14 years here. Now I’m at the point where I feel like if he doesn’t tell me the truth that I already know 1000000% than I want to be done for good.

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Tired

Going through the same. What makes it harder is when you have hard fact truth of them lying and you find it sitting right in front of them and they still lie or shut up completely. I have tried everything there is to get my husband to quit lying. I have gotten to the point, in little over 3 years, I am snappy, grumpy, b**chy and he now wonders why i have became a unhappy person.

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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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The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️
For our kids and teens, the new year will bring new adults into their orbit. With this, comes new opportunities to be brave and grow their courage - but it will also bring anxiety. For some kiddos, this anxiety will feel so big, but we can help them feel bigger.

The antidote to a felt sense of threat is a felt sense of safety. As long as they are actually safe, we can facilitate this by nurturing their relationship with the important adults who will be caring for them, whether that’s a co-parent, a stepparent, a teacher, a coach. 

There are a number of ways we can facilitate this:

- Use the name of their other adult (such as a teacher) regularly, and let it sound loving and playful on your voice.
- Let them see that you have an open, willing heart in relation to the other adult.
- Show them you trust the other adult to care for them (‘I know Mrs Smith is going to take such good care of you.’)
- Facilitate familiarity. As much as you can, hand your child to the same person when you drop them off.

It’s about helping expand their village of loving adults. The wider this village, the bigger their world in which they can feel brave enough. 

For centuries before us, it was the village that raised children. Parenting was never meant to be done by one or two adults on their own, yet our modern world means that this is how it is for so many of us. 

We can bring the village back though - and we must - by helping our kiddos feel safe, known, and held by the adults around them. We need this for each other too.

The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains that block our way.♥️

That power of felt safety matters for all relationships - parent and child; other adult and child; parent and other adult. It all matters. 

A teacher, or any important adult in the life of a child, can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child (and their parent) so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, I care about you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
Approval, independence, autonomy, are valid needs for all of us. When a need is hungry enough we will be driven to meet it however we can. For our children, this might look like turning away from us and towards others who might be more ready to meet the need, or just taking.

If they don’t feel they can rest in our love, leadership, approval, they will seek this more from peers. There is no problem with this, but we don’t want them solely reliant on peers for these. It can make them vulnerable to making bad decisions, so as not to lose the approval or ‘everythingness’ of those peers.

If we don’t give enough freedom, they might take that freedom through defiance, secrecy, the forbidden. If we control them, they might seek more to control others, or to let others make the decisions that should be theirs.

All kids will mess up, take risks, keep secrets, and do things that baffle us sometimes. What’s important is, ‘Do they turn to us when they need to, enough?’ The ‘turning to’ starts with trusting that we are interested in supporting all their needs, not just the ones that suit us. Of course this doesn’t mean we will meet every need. It means we’ve shown them that their needs are important to us too, even though sometimes ours will be bigger (such as our need to keep them safe).

They will learn safe and healthy ways to meet their needs, by first having them met by us. This doesn’t mean granting full independence, full freedom, and full approval. What it means is holding them safely while also letting them feel enough of our approval, our willingness to support their independence, freedom, autonomy, and be heard on things that matter to them.

There’s no clear line with this. Some days they’ll want independence. Some days they won’t. Some days they’ll seek our approval. Some days they won’t care for it at all, especially if it means compromising the approval of peers. The challenge for us is knowing when to hold them closer and when to give space, when to hold the boundary and when to release it a little, when to collide and when to step out of the way. If we watch and listen, they will show us. And just like them, we won’t need to get it right all the time.♥️

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