Detecting Deception: A Crash Course on Lie-Spotting

How do you know if someone is lying? This is one of the most common questions people expect psychology to be able to answer. Being the study of the mind and behavior, psychology is counted on by many people to teach them the cues to look for in order to identify instances of deception. Later in the article, we’ll delve into these “cues of deception,” but first let’s talk about a few important points on lying.

Social media expert and Certified Fraud Examiner Pamela Meyer, author of “Liespotting”, says that one of the most basic truths about lying is that it is essentially “a cooperative act.” She explains that a lie only has power when someone else believes it—otherwise, it’s just another empty set of words that doesn’t do much harm any more than the words on a care instruction label do. Sometimes, we can be “willing” participants in making a lie what it is, when we agree to believe it for the sake of social pleasantries or maintaining good social relationships. This kind of lies, we’re willing to let slip, and even sometimes commit ourselves—as when we tell the hostess the dinner she cooked was terrific, even though everyone would really rather not let her loose in the kitchen again.

But other times, we’re unwilling participants in deception. The kind of lies told for self-serving purposes—or those told by some individuals for personal gains or to advance their own motives—can ultimately be destructive to us and our relationships. This is where the value of having the knowhow in detecting deception comes in.

Before we move on to discuss the visual cues and other telltale signs of deception, it is important that we recognize the limitations of what psychology can teach us about how to spot liars. Please do not expect that by the end of this article, you shall be able to acquire or develop in you some superpower which will allow you to see a blinking red light every time the person in front of you is telling a lie. Generally, psychologists are in agreement that there is no single foolproof way to definitely know that someone is lying. Studying psychology, after all, does not give one the ability to read minds like an open book or to hear what people are thinking, like what you might see on sci-fi movies. What psychology provides, based on decades of research and careful observation of human behavior, are the scientific knowledge and clues that can help you recognize when someone might be trying to deceive you. Meyer identifies two patterns of deception that can typically be seen when someone is lying:

1. Speech

“There are some that only employ words for the purpose of disguising their thoughts.” — Voltaire

Meyer relates that someone lying may leak out telltale signs of deception through the choice of words or language he or she uses. One verbal clue that may indicate deception is the use of the non-contracted denial. When someone explicitly tells you, “I did not do it,” as opposed to the contracted version of the statement (“I didn’t do it”), he or she might be overemphasizing the denial in an attempt to cover up the truth. The use of “did not” provides an extra emphasis that’s usually unnecessary when one feels secure in his or her honesty. People tend to resort to formal rather than informal language when they are lying, as they are likely to put in the effort to provide a good explanation or story to try to convince you that they’re telling the truth.

A frequently-cited case with regard to this is Bill Clinton’s famous statement “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” in response to allegations of his having an affair with Monica Lewinsky—an affair which he later admitted to having in a subsequent national statement.

Another example of a verbal clue that someone may be lying is what is called “distancing.” If you may refer to the above statement by Bill Clinton, you will notice he hit the double whammy on the checklist of liar language when he referred to Monica Lewinsky as “that woman.” Instead of directly referring to Lewinsky by name, Clinton used the intervening phrase “that woman” to try to distance himself from the subject of his lie. Note that the use of distancing language is largely unconscious on the part of the liar—it’s likely an unconscious attempt to deal with the guilt one is trying to hide, or to distance oneself from the consequences of the offense.

2. Body Language Slips

“No mortal can keep a secret. If the lips are silent, he chatters with his fingertips.” — Sigmund Freud

In the science of detecting the cues that indicate deception, it is important to be aware that some long-standing assumptions about it may no longer be applicable in the modern day. Just as psychologists, social scientists, and trained interrogators have identified the common signs of deception, liars have also evolved to make an effort to counter these telltale signs when they’re lying. For instance, Meyer relates that while it is a common assumption that someone lying will tend to avoid eye contact, updated information with regard to this now points that liars will look you straight in the eye just a little too much, in order to make up for this assumption and better deliver the lie as if he or she were telling the truth. Also, while fidgeting used to be another telltale sign of lying as it indicated discomfort and possible guilt, modern science reveals that those determined to deceive you will tend to freeze their upper bodies while lying, as they try to focus on convincing you they’re telling  the truth.

Another body language cue that may indicate someone is trying to hide the truth is shifting a stance or sitting position so one’s feet points towards an exit door—an unconscious gesture that indicates the person may be feeling uncomfortable with how the conversation is going and is anxious to leave. Another is placing a barrier object (such as moving to the other side of the table) between the two of you while you are conversing, a move made when one is feeling vulnerable or attacked, in an attempt to shield oneself from being under fire or excessively questioned.

Also, being more observant of someone’s facial microexpressions may help you recognize when there is incongruence between what one is saying and what he or she is actually feeling. For instance, a real smile can be differentiated from a fake smile by looking at someone’s eyes. While a fake smile will only involve a contraction of the lips and cheeks, a real smile will reach the eyes and produce “crow’s feet” at the sides of the eyes. Meyer explains that the muscles that produce crow’s feet cannot be consciously contracted and are thus indicators of a genuine smile, while the lips and cheeks can be consciously contracted and may thus simply be controlled to produce a fake smile.

Again, no one can expect to be transformed into an expert lie-spotter by merely knowing the cues enumerated above. It takes years of training and practice to be able to perfect the science and art of lie-spotting, and even more expertise is needed when you’re dealing with someone who’s equally trained in the art of deception and lying.

Meyer highlights that a single cue in itself does not mean much; it is clusters of these cues and behaviors that should serve as a significant warning to you that the person you’re dealing with may be trying to deceive you. And in instances of recognizing such cues in someone, take caution not to jump from the frying pan and into the fire by immediately accusing the person of lying. Instead, Meyer advises that you use these cues to navigate the conversation better and judge the situation more rationally— take a position of curiosity instead of comfortable certainty, probe more sensibly, and ask additional questions while being observant to how the person responds and interacts with you. This way, you can make your knowledge of lie-spotting techniques work best for you, and you can participate not in reinforcing a culture of lies and deception, but in cultivating a society of truth and integrity. ♣

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4 thoughts on “Detecting Deception: A Crash Course on Lie-Spotting

    • Thanks, Karen! I agree. Sometimes we instinctively notice things, but if we’re not keen enough on following through with what those gut feelings are trying to say, we miss out on the wisdom they offer.


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