How to Spot a Liar at Work
Jan 24, 2019
By Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD
“You can count on my support.”
“It wasn’t my fault.”
“You’re next in line for a promotion.”
Wouldn’t it be great to know when we’re being lied to? If only spotting falsehoods were as easy as it is portrayed on television shows like “Lie to Me” and “The Mentalist.” But in real life, deception detection remains an inexact science.
Lying triggers stress
For the vast majority of individuals the act of lying triggers a heightened stress response. These signs of stress and anxiety are obvious, if you know where to look. Basically, research shows that the mind has to work a lot harder to generate a false response. One theory, posed by Daniel Langleben, a psychiatrist at the University of Pennsylvania, is that, in order to tell a lie, the brain first has to stop itself from telling the truth, then create the deception, and then deal with the accompanying emotions of guilt, anxiety, and the fear of being caught.
Spotting deception begins with observing a person’s baseline behavior under relaxed or generally stress-free conditions so that you can detect meaningful deviations. One of the strategies that experienced police interrogators use is to ask a series of non-threatening questions while observing how the subject behaves when there is no reason to lie. Then, when the more difficult issues get addressed, the officers watch for changes in nonverbal behavior that indicate deception around key points.
In business dealings, the best way to understand someone’s baseline behavior is to observe her over an extended period of time. Note her speech tone, gestures, blinking patterns, etc. Once you’ve assessed what is “normal” for a co-worker, you will be able to detect shifts, when her body language is “out of character.” Just remember (and this is key), that the atypical signals you detect may be signs of lying—or a state of heightened anxiety caused by many other factors.
One of the biggest body language myths about liars is that they avoid eye contact. In fact, many liars, especial the most brazen, may actually overcompensate (to prove that they are not lying) by making too much eye contact and holding it too long.
12 tell-tale signs of lying
My best advice is not to rely on any one signal. You’ll be more successful if you look for clusters of behaviors (three or four body language cues that reinforce one another). To increase your chances of spotting a falsehood, watch for a cluster of body language cues that include:
1. A fake smile. It’s hard for liars to give a real smile while seeking to deceive. (Real smiles crinkle the corners of the eyes and change the entire face. Faked smiles involve the mouth only.)
2. Unusual response time. When a lie is planned (and rehearsed), deceivers start their answers more quickly than truth-tellers. If taken by surprise, however, the liar takes longer to respond, as the process of inhibiting the truth and creating a lie takes extra time.
3. Verbal cues. When lying, a person’s vocal tone rises to a higher pitch. Other verbal cues include rambling, selective wording (in which one avoids answering the question exactly as asked), stammering, and the use of qualifiers (“To the best of my knowledge.” “I could be wrong.”). It’s also been noted that liars use fewer contractions: “I did not have sex with that woman” rather than “I didn’t . . . ”
4. Under or over production of saliva. Watch for sudden swallowing in gulps or an increased need to drink water or moisten lips.
5. Pupil dilation. One nonverbal signal that is almost impossible to fake is pupil dilation. The larger pupil size that most people experience when telling a lie can be attributed to an increased amount of tension and concentration.
6. Change in blink rate. A person’s blink rate slows down as she decides to lie and stays low through the lie. Then it increases rapidly (sometimes up to eight times normal rate) after the lie.
7. Foot movements. When lying, people will often display nervousness and anxiety through increased foot movements. They will fidget and shuffle their feet and wind one around the other or around the furniture. They will stretch and curl their feet to relieve tension, or even kick out in a miniaturized attempt to run away.
8. Face touching. A person’s nose may not grow when he tells a lie, but watch closely and you’ll notice that when someone is about to lie or make an outrageous statement, he’ll often unconsciously rub his nose. (This is most likely because a rush of adrenaline opens the capillaries and makes his nose itch.) Covering the mouth or eyes are additional common gestures people make when they are being untruthful.
9. Incongruence. When a person believes what she is saying, her gestures and expressions are in alignment with her words. When you see a mismatch—where gestures contradict words—such as a side-to-side head shake while saying “yes” or a person frowning and staring at the ground while telling you she is happy, that’s a sign of deceit, or at least an inner conflict between what that person is thinking and saying.
10. Changes in gestures. Often, in an effort to prevent their gestures from “giving away” the lie, deceivers will hold their bodies unnaturally still. At other times, especially after being asked a searching question, they may accelerate pacifying gestures—biting their lips, rubbing their hands together, fidgeting with jewelry, or touching their hair.
11. Micro-expressions. Difficult to catch, but if you ever spot a fleeting expression that contradicts a verbal statement, believe what you see and not what you hear.
12. The quick-check glance. This may follow a less-than-truthful response: liars will immediately look down and away, then quickly glance back at you to see if you bought the falsehood.
A final caveat: If a person really believes the lie, there is no way that you can detect the falsehood. However, unless you are dealing with a pathological liar or a superb actor, you can definitely improve your odds of spotting those who try to deceive you!
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