How well can you tell when someone's lying straight to your face? Think you're pretty good? Bad news. You're not. In fact, according to a comprehensive study, most of us are only able to successfully spot a lie 54% of the time. That's basically as good as guessing heads or tails.
However, with the right tools you can substantially improve your ability to sniff out deception. To learn what it takes, I talked to a couple long-time police detectives with extensive interrogation experience. I also steeped in the expertise of Pamela Meyer, a Harvard-educated deception expert who's literally written the book on how to spot a liar. Pro-tip: keep your eyes on the feet.
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1. Pay attention to how they steer the conversation
When someone repeats a question you've asked back to you verbatim, be on high alert. According to Meyer, "responding to a tough question by repeating it in full is a delaying tactic to allow time to construct a deceptive answer." And Steve Albrecht, a 15-year veteran of the San Diego police force and author of seven books on tactics-related subject matter, agrees: "[One of] my biggest giveaways for lying is answering a question with a question, 'Take the money? Why would I take money? I have a good job.'"
2. Watch the face very carefully
Unsurprisingly, one of the most reliable indicators of a lie is in the face of the person who's telling it. However, in order to detect the subtle giveaways you need to familiarize yourself with a spectrum of so-called "micro expressions" which Meyer explains as the expression that your subject may be attempting to squelch in a given moment. She maintains that they are a reliable indicator that a lie is currently, or will soon be, told. However, since a micro-expression is often eeked out in just a fraction of a second, it's important to brush up on expression recognition. To become an expression-detecting pro in under an hour, play around with this mesmerizing digital animation of how every muscle in the face works.
3. Read their body language
Body language is a powerful indicator of subconscious emotions in every single situation we find ourselves, thus there are myriad physical tip-offs that someone isn't being straight with you. Meyer suggests keeping an eye out for a grouping of "nonverbal clusters," which include a full range of behaviors from grooming gestures (lint-picking) to a stiff upper body/inappropriate stillness, to biting of the lips. These are not definitive, of course, but if they're noticeable they should raise a flag to stay alert. Similarly, Albrecht cautions to watch out for "blushing, sweating, covering [their] mouth with [their] hand when [they] answer, or using 'escape the room' body language, where [their] feet are pointed toward the door although [their] body is facing me."
4. Too much charisma is a red flag
Among other things, being overly charming is one of the biggest traits of a sociopath, and while not every liar is a sociopath, it's important to keep your guard up. As former longtime Atlanta robbery and homicide detective/ SWAT specialist Charles Radinger told me, "They will use this to help lower your guard, win your trust, and make you feel showered with attention and flattery. Think, 'too much too soon'." It's also important to watch out for blatant selfishness: "Short of using their charisma to prime you for their purposes, everything about them is self-serving. Does everything somehow end up being about them? Do they ever seek out to learn about genuine matters in your life? If so, does it quickly revert back to being about them?" He also notes that these types of liars are prone to grandiose and shocking claims about their life.
According to Meyer, this is one of the easiest ways to crack a lie wide open. If you can force a "suspect" to jump around in their story, you can watch to see how hard they're working to ensure the details of their story follows a logical pattern. "Real stories often don't make perfect sense, and someone telling the truth won't worry too much about making sure all the details line up perfectly. In addition, someone telling a true story shouldn't have too much trouble when asked to go back and retell a piece of his story—he'll just pick up the narrative thread. Liars will often stumble around as they try to find an appropriate starting point."
6. Ask them open-ended questions
This may seem like a no-brainer, but it's one of the more powerful ways to catch someone acting dishonestly. Rather than let them skirt by responding to a yes or no question, give them room to incriminate themselves. For example, Meyer recommends that rather than posing something straightforward like, "Did you take the 6:15pm flight to New Jersey," hit 'em with, "What happened after you started driving to the airport?" Your chances of gleaning something that cracks open their lie will improve dramatically.
7. Watch the eyes
Does the person appear to blinking too quickly? People generally blink far more frequently when they're trying to obscure the truth. Same goes for those who are blinking too infrequently. And pay careful attention to how their pupils are dilated. If it isn't dark in the room and they look big, they may be concealing fear, which wouldn't be present if they weren't afraid of being caught doing something wrong.
8. Listen for specific words and phrases
There are a number of token liar phrases and word usages to look out for. Meyer's most common truth-obscuring verbal device is something she calls hedging, i.e., "As far as I can recall," or "What I remember is." Another tell can be their lack of using "non-contracted denial." The most memorable example of such a thing may be Bill Clinton's infamous declaration, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman" in which he consciously chose to avoid the contraction (didn't), but particularly emphasized "did not." "Hyper-swearing" is also one of the biggest giveaways, according Albrecht, who insists if you hear anything along the lines of, "I swear on a stack of Bibles, or my grandmother's grave, or my kids' lives that I never touched that woman," you're likely dealing with a liar. Liars are also more likely to come up with a very specific denial in a situation, whereas a truth teller has no trouble with categorical denials, i.e., "I've never cheated on anyone in my whole life."
One of the most common tactics for a liar is to minimize even the slightest suggestion that they're involved. For instance, Albrecht says to watch out for statements like, "I wish I could tell you more about what happened after I left the bar."
Joe McGauley is a senior editor at Supercompressor. He did not have sexual relations with that woman. Seriously. Promise. He swears to god.