How to Tell if Someone Is Lying, According to Detectives
From exaggerations to fabrications, everyone lies on occasion. It's true. Even the most honest individuals have fibbed just to be polite. And while the reason (and degree) of each lie varies—some are designed to protect feelings while others are far more serious—deception occurs. But how can you tell if someone is lying? We asked detectives, therapists, and body language experts to weigh in on the matter, and this is what they said.
Know the person's baseline.
In order to determine if someone is lying, you need to know how the individual usually handles stress. "Any deviation from the norm may indicate deception or... discomfort with the subject," Dr. Jonathan Alpert, a New York-based psychotherapist and author of Be Fearless: Change Your Life in 28 Days, says. And Rick Musson, a law enforcement consultant and 18 year veteran of the Bozeman Police Department, agrees. "It's important to learn what a person's typical physical demeanor is so that you can accurately discern signs of lying," Musson explains.
Listen to the tone and pacing of their voice.
While everyone speaks differently, liars tend to have a few tells. "Mumbling and, or talking faster than normal may indicate a person is anxious to finish the conversation and avoid answering questions," Alpert says. Fragmentary speech is common, and tonal shifts may also occur. However, since these behaviors can happen for countless other reasons, they are only a red flag if they differ from the norm.
Watch their eyes and body language, but know that there are stronger indicators.
For years, many considered physical indicators to be something of a gold standard for lie detection, i.e. it was commonly believed that pacing, fidgeting, sweating, and swaying implied one was uncomfortable. Darting eyes were considered suspicious, and a lack of eye contact was regarded as a huge tell.
It was thought that the wayward glance was the liar's way of hiding the truth. However, recent studies have found this method of lie detection to be the most inefficient. According to Joseph Hoelscher, a trial attorney and continuing legal education trainer, "physical indicators of lying are mostly unreliable. Despite continued training for law enforcement officers to the contrary, reading body language to determine truthfulness has been largely debunked." And Dr. Tina B. Tessina, a psychotherapist and author of Dr. Romance's Guide to Finding Love Today agrees.
"Body language is not a good predictor of lying, as pathological or habitual liars can become so comfortable with lying that they don't give it away in posture or expressions."
That said, there are a few exceptions. Any "change in a person's demeanor could indicate untruthfulness," Hoelscher says, and microgestures—or involuntary facial expressions—can predict deception as well.
Keep an eye out for inconsistencies in behavior.
Behavioral markers are more reliable than physical ones, but they are also more complex. "Behavioral markers are very contingent on inconsistencies," Dr. Ashley Hampton, a licensed psychologist, says. "For example, when I worked in the prison system, I had a client that only came to 'check in' when they had violated the rules. The inmate was trying to search for what I knew or didn't know about their behavior." An individual's previous actions also carry a lot of weight.
Pay careful attention to their words.
While there are not any specific words liars do (or do not) use, many liars are repetitive. "Something to watch for in conversation is repeating a question or saying, 'What?' when they heard the question," Musson explains, as this is a liar's way of "subconsciously buying time." Inconsistencies are also a red flag. If a liar is asked the following questions, "The 'um'... could be an indication of a lie."
Did you have any cheese?
Do you have any tricycles?
Do you have any cars?
According to John J. Schlageter III, an attorney and director of the paralegal studies at The University of Toledo, they also make unnecessary declarations of "truth." Liars say things like "let me be honest with you" and "the truth is."
One of the easiest ways to determine if someone is lying is to ask a lot of questions. The reason? According to Tessina, "The more questions you ask, the harder it is to maintain a lie."
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