By Jess Goulart
Photo courtesy of Tristan Schmurr.
Contrary to popular myth, there’s no tell-tale, universal sign that someone is lying. Liars don’t necessarily look down to the right, stumble over words, or fidget endlessly. They don’t catch fire and their noses will remain quite the same shape and size, no matter what is coming out of their mouths.
According to Dr. Christian Hart, deception expert and Associate Professor of Psychology at the Texas Woman’s University, the best way to catch a liar is to watch for a change in what’s called their “baseline behavior.”
“We’d done some previous research showing that when people are looking for evidence that someone is lying they tend to be looking for all the wrong things,” Hart tells BTR. “We’d also done research showing that when we show subjects video’s of people lying or telling the truth and ask them to distinguish subjects are horribly inaccurate, performing at above chance levels. We were thinking maybe one of the reasons they’re so poor is because they’re looking for those wrong indicators.”
Hart designed a study where one group of subjects watched the series of videos and tried to access who was lying, while another group tried simply assessed any change in behavior. The group looking for changes in behavior performed significantly better in assessing who was lying.
“If you’re trying to find evidence of someone lying there isn’t any specific behavior you should be looking for but rather you should just focus on their pattern of behavior and notice when it changes.”
Why the change in behavior? Most people don’t like to lie because of a psychological phenomenon called cognitive dissonance, which is the anxiety people naturally feel when they hold two conflicting beliefs about the same subject. Add to that the nervousness you feel at the thought of being caught, and lying actually increases stress hormones in your body. A recent study by Notre Dame Professor of Psychology Anita E. Kelly, PhD, found that participants who were instructed to lie less than a control group over the course of ten weeks reported less mental and physical health complaints during that time period. This stress is likely the culprit behind the change in baseline behavior.
“People are pretty savvy,” Hart says, “they detect liars even when they don’t know how they are detecting liars, so the key is to maintain whatever you’re doing typically–which is a really difficult thing to do for most people because they’re largely unaware of what they’re doing.”
Hart goes on to explain that if you ask someone how many times they’ve touched their face in the last hour, they usually will have no idea, despite the fact that most people touch their face more than one time per minute.
Another study by Hart with yet unpublished results found people are poor at detecting liars in the moment, but good at becoming accurately suspicious when being lied to. This is especially true when it comes to the selection of mates. According to Hart, women are naturally highly suspicious of men with regards to their status, income, and propensity to commit.
Though it’s reassuring to know most won’t be able to flat out tell when you lie, you’ll have to stick to your story when they start to suspect.
Your diction, syntax, and even grammar can also give you away, according to Mark McClish, retired Deputy Marshal, Secret Service, and author of I Know You Are Lying and Don’t Be Deceived. McClish specializes in analyzing statements to detect deception and spent nine years teaching interviewing techniques at the Marshal Service Training Academy. During his time there, he conducted studies with his students, having half of them write true statements and half of them write false ones, slowly developing a system to determine which was which based on the years of data.
“There are several ways you can phrase a statement, and people always word their statements based on all their knowledge,” McClish tells BTR. “That means most of the time people give us more info than what they realize. It all gets down to listening to what someone is saying–exactly what is that person telling you based on their language? I don’t need to hear the person or see the person, just give me a written statement.”
Casey Anthony is a prime example of statement analysis at work. Anthony is the young mother in Orlando, FL, who was on trial for the murder of her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee. Anthony told law enforcement “after dropping Caylee off, I proceeded to head to my place of employment at Universal Studios.”
McClish points out she did not say “I went to my place of employment.” The word “proceeded” means you begin an action but don’t necessarily finish the action. It was too hard for Anthony to say “I went to my place of employment,” because that’s a definitive statement and an outright lie (triggering anxiety), so she softens it by using the word “proceeded” instead. It turns out that not only had Anthony lied about her place of employment, but she had fabricated an entire mythos about her life, including the creation of what turned out to be a completely imaginary babysitter.
According to McClish, there’s a long list of words and phrases you should avoid using when you’re lying, but here are a couple red flags:
Don’t use the word “never” to answer a “yes” or “no” question. Why? The word “never” is negative, and so is the word “no,” but they are not synonymous. If you use the word “never” you are avoiding a direct response.
Don’t begin your sentence with “actually.” “Actually” implies you are comparing what you are speaking aloud with something else that you are consciously omitting. For example, “what did you do last night?” “Actually, I went to Tony’s house,” means you are comparing going to Tony’s house with an action you had begun previously.
Don’t repeat the question or answer it with another question, those are both fairly obvious stall tactics.
For more statement analysis, follow this link.
People like McClish have their work cut out for them, as on average Americans report lying at least 11 times per week, and the idea of the “white lie” remains a steady corner stone of our culture. Though you may be better equipped after these tips from the experts, it’s still not the best idea to go forth and fib. Not only does it adversely affect your health, but being caught can bring on feelings of shame, embarrassment, and regret.
However, if you ever find your back is up against a wall, now you know how to lie your way up the ladder.