Think You Can Spot a Lie? Think Again

Nail your next investigation interview with these 5 steps to the truth

Posted by Dawn Lomer in on August 2nd, 2012

Most of us think we are pretty good at telling that someone is lying, whether it’s because they fidget, avoid eye contact or exhibit some other sign that we think is a red flag for deception. And considering that on an average day we are told up to 200 lies, it certainly would be handy to be able to spot a lie instinctively. However, life isn’t that easy. It turns out that the average person detects deception correctly only about half the time. We’d be just as effective if we flipped a coin.

Trained liespotters, on the other hand, can detect deception 90 per cent of the time, says Pamela Meyer, CFE and author of Liespotting: Proven Techniques to Detect Deception. Meyer spent three years studying the research behind lie detection for her book and has developed a system for detecting deception based on scientific principles, which she also presented as a TED talk.

Long Learning Curve

The problem with learning to detect deception, says Meyer, is that you may not find out for years that someone has deceived you. And by the time you do find out, you can’t remember the signs they exhibited. “You don’t learn in real time what the signs of that person’s lies really are. So there’s a long learning curve,” she says.

Meyer likens it to serving a tennis ball into the court and seeing right away where the ball goes. “You know immediately when it’s out, and you can adjust your behavior,” she says. Not so with lies, which may go undetected for years, or even forever.

Training, therefore, is an essential part of becoming an effective liespotter. “It can increase your ability to get to the truth, but it takes time and it requires an investment,” says Meyer.

Don’t Rely on Your Gut

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A well-known study once found that the more confident you are in your deception detection ability, the worse you are at it. Meyer sees this as one of the obstacles that the average person has to overcome when trying to spot lies.

“People believe it’s all about gut instinct and they’re not educated as to the science,” she says. “Somebody will look away and they’ll think they’re a liar because they subscribe to the myth that liars won’t look you in the eye. Their gut instinct has been informed by myth.” In fact, most honest people maintain eye contact only 40 to 60 per cent of the time and in some cultures, too much direct eye contact is considered rude.

Meyer doesn’t recommend ignoring gut instinct completely. It’s often right, she says. But it needs to be informed by knowledge of the science. And that’s what Meyer teaches when she does corporate training in liespotting.

Identifying Clusters

One area where Meyer does feel that gut instinct is valuable is in identifying the clusters of behaviors or language that may indicate deception. She describes behaviors that could be considered telling, but warns that you first have to establish a baseline for the person being interviewed. From there, you can start to determine whether he or she is exhibiting clusters of behaviors.

“Obviously if there’s one or two, that is not a cluster. When you get to three, four and five, that’s where you have a cluster. If you really can’t tell, you’re going to look for more clusters,” she says.

Five Steps to the Truth

In her book, Meyer explains a concept that she calls the BASIC interview method. Instead of calling it an interrogation technique, she calls it a “conversation guide”, which is comprised of five steps:

  1. B – Baseline behavior
  2. A – Ask open-ended questions
  3. S – Study the clusters
  4. I – Intuit the gaps
  5. C – Confirm

It’s not difficult to spot lies when you know what to look for, says Meyer, but you need to be trained to do it effectively. Learn how to implement these five BASIC steps and you’ll be on your way. Then, says Meyer, “All you need are your ears, your eyes and your absolute objectivity.”

Dawn Lomer
Dawn Lomer

Managing Editor

Dawn Lomer is the managing editor at i-Sight Software and a Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE). She writes about topics related to workplace investigations, ethics and compliance, data security and e-discovery, and hosts i-Sight webinars.