Elisabeth Eaves, November 03, 2006
We don't think these people are really aware of the fact that there are a LOT of psychopaths in the world, and the numbers seem to be increasing. So, obviously, this will only work if you are dealing with someone who is basically sincere and, for whatever reason, feels compelled to lie and isn't used to doing it.
In business, politics and romance, it would be nice to know when we're being lied to. Unfortunately humans aren't very good at detecting lies. Our natural tendency is to trust others, and for day-to-day, low-stakes interactions, that makes sense. We save time and energy by taking statements like "I saw that movie" or "I like your haircut" at face value.
But while it would be too much work to analyze every interaction for signs of deception, there are times when we really need to know if we're getting the straight story. Maybe a crucial negotiation depends on knowing the truth, or we've been lied to and want to find out if it's part of a pattern.
In fact, being able to distinguish lies from truth is important not just in our personal lives but in the economy at large. Trust lubricates virtually every transaction we undertake. In fact, trust may be worth as much as $12.4 trillion dollars a year in the United States alone, about 99.5% of GDP. It's no stretch to argue that by reducing trust, liars make us collectively poorer.
Lies told on the printed page or on a TV screen may be the hardest to detect.When a journalist at a respected publication tells a tall tale--like the New York Times' Jayson Blair or The New Republic's Stephen Glass--those of us without reams of time on our hands aren't likely to uncover it on our own. The same goes for deceptive campaign advertisements. Fortunately, at least in the case of politics, we can rely on nonprofit, nonpartisan organizations like Factcheck.org, to review the veracity of political claims coming from both sides of the aisle.
Face to face it's easier to make our own judgments about whether someone is telling the truth. Psychologists who study deception, though, are quick to warn that there is no foolproof method. Bella DePaulo, a visiting professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, writes that "lying is not a distinct psychological process with its own unique behavioral indicators. It does matter how liars feel and how they think." Indeed, many of the tell-tale signs common to liars, like fidgeting and sweating, can also be signs of ordinary anxiety. It's tough to tell the difference between a liar and an honest person who happens to be under a lot of stress.
That said, police officers and spies use a slew of interrogation tricks that the rest of us can adopt to improve our detection odds. The professionals look and listen for signs of nervousness, and pay close attention to the content of a suspect's story. Does it contain a lot of detail? Does it stay consistent through repeated tellings?
Of course, there will always be those who have honed their deception skills to perfection, and they're never easy to catch. Hardened criminals, especially ones who have been interrogated dozens of times, get better and better at lying, says 20-year New York Police Department veteran Derrick Parker. Magicians also know how to deceive by exhibiting a pleasant manner and relying on spectators' assumptions.
For most of us, though, it's not magicians or criminal masterminds we need to worry about when it comes to detecting deceivers. In fact, we should be most on guard against ourselves. "Often we don't want to know when somebody is lying," explains University of Massachusetts psychology professor Robert Feldman. In short, we are programmed to believe compliments and avoid painful truths, both of which make a liar's task much easier.
Derrick Parker, a 20-year veteran of the New York Police Department and co-author of Notorious C.O.P., says to look for physical clues, especially sweating and fidgeting.
Liars' stories often lack detail, says Lindsay Moran, a former CIA officer and author of Blowing My Cover: My Life as a CIA Spy. Her solution: Push your subject for particulars. The more minutiae a liar has to provide, the more likely he is to slip up.
"Liars are noticeably less cooperative than truth-tellers," found psychologists Bella M. DePaulo and Wendy L. Morris in a review of studies on deception. "Liars also make more negative statements and complaints than truth-tellers do, and they appear somewhat less friendly and pleasant," they write in The Detection of Deception in Forensic Contexts.
Observe Eye Contact
A subject's failure to make eye contact is often sign of deceit, say both former NYPD officer Parker and former CIA agent Moran.
Signs of Stress
Look for dilated pupils and a rise in vocal pitch. Psychologists DePaulo and Morris found that both phenomena were more common in liars than truth-tellers.
Listen for the Pause
Forced to make up a story on the spot, most speakers will take a beat or two to collect their thoughts.
Police interrogators often ask suspects to repeat their stories, and listen for inconsistencies to ferret out lies. But be careful: "Smart people maintain the consistency of lies better than dumb people," says psychologist Robert Feldman, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts.
Beware Those Who Protest Too Much
Someone who consciously is trying to make you think he's honest--for instance, by injecting the phrase "to be honest"--may be lying. Most people assume they will be trusted most of the time. If someone expects otherwise, take a moment to ask yourself why.
One reason liars succeed is that listeners don't really want to know the truth, says psychologist Feldman. So be honest with yourself about what it is you want to hear. You may wish to believe that a trusted employee didn't have his hand in the cookie jar. But does his story actually make sense?
Work on Your Intuition
"Good human lie detectors, if there are such persons, are likely to be good intuitive psychologists. They would figure out how a person might think or feel if lying in a particular situation, compared to telling the truth, then look for behavioral indications of those thoughts or feelings," write psychologists De Paulo and Morris.