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Spotting the liars among us

Created date

December 25th, 2012
Liespotting: Proven Techniques to Detect Deception

They go by different names—fibs, whoppers, tall tales—and you’ll find them at all levels of society. From the ordinary Joe’s “The check is in the mail,” to President Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook,” self-serving lies plague us at every turn.

Indeed, people have been lying for as long as they’ve been able to communicate and prolifically so. Researchers estimate that we encounter as many as 200 lies a day.

Given the sheer volume alone, one would think we’d know deception when we see it, all of us human lie detectors capable of spotting the slightest hint of dishonesty. But studies indicate that this is as far from the truth as the lies we tell.

In fact, the average person is able to distinguish fact from falsehood only 50% of the time, in large part because he or she doesn’t know what to look for.

In her book, Liespotting: Proven Techniques to Detect Deception (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2011), Pamela Meyer explores the anatomy of a liar down to the smallest details—gestures, facial expressions, temperament, and word choice—and shows how the simplest of behavioral cues can speak volumes about a person’s sincerity.

“Liespotting is not a parlor trick,” says Meyer, a certified fraud examiner who has spent years studying the science of deception. “The key is to look for clusters of indicators that surface when you ask hard questions.”

While these clusters can be any combination of “tells” that may vary from person to person, knowing the fundamental red flags for deception will go a long way in spotting lies. Here are some tips and pointers to get you started:

Non-verbal clues

Often, liars unwittingly reveal themselves not through what they say but what they do. In particular, look for tics that appear unnatural or distracting. Liars tend to blink excessively, rub their eyes, purse their lips, and, in some cases, make grooming gestures that include fidgeting with their hair.

Posture and facial expressions can also betray deception. Crossed arms and slumped shoulders, for instance, may indicate a defensive or protective position. Similarly, asymmetrical expressions, such as a half smile or the shrug of one shoulder commonly signal insincerity.

Verbal clues

Of course, your ears are just as important as your eyes in spotting deception. More than anything else, liars want you to believe them and they’re normally willing to go over the top to persuade you.

Listen for emphatic bolstering statements and religious references like “I certainly did not,” or “I swear on the Bible.” You may also notice the person avoiding contractions, perhaps the best known example of which being Bill Clinton’s resounding assurance that “I did not have sexual relations with that woman . . .”

Also, pay attention to timing, as this may indicate fabrication rather than recall. Normally, when you ask someone a question, they’ll immediately respond with an answer. There’s no need to sit and think about it.

If you notice long pauses or a tendency to repeat the question that you just asked them, chances are, they’re buying time to come up with a story.

Ask the right questions

Now you know what to look and listen for. Here’s what you should say. Whenever you suspect that someone is lying to you, be sure you ask open-ended questions. Pointed questions are easier to answer and usually contain more detail.

An open-ended question forces the other person to furnish the details. If he or she is telling the truth, this shouldn’t be a problem. If not, the innumerable red flags for deception will probably pour forth.

Finally, try asking the same question several different ways. If a person is on the level, his or her answers should be consistent.

For more tips and pointers on spotting deception, visit Pamela Meyer online at

Liespotting 101

Non-verbal clues

Grooming gestures

Rubbing the eyes (typically seen in men)

Hand wringing

Stiff upper body, unnatural stillness

Pursed lips or biting of the lips

Slumped or self-protective posture

Fidgeting with objects

Excessive sweating, breathing, finger tapping

Shift in blink rate

Shrugs, clenched fists

Fake smile

Verbal clues

Qualifying statements like “As far as I know…” or “To be honest…”

Bolstering statements like “I certainly did not.”

Repeating questions just asked

Delayed responses to questions

Emphatic religious references like “I swear on the Bible.”

Source: Liespotting: Proven Techniques to Detect Deception (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2011)