Ten tips from FBI and CIA detectives and psychologists: how to understand when you are lying

Did you know that only 54% of lies can be unmistakably recognized? In addition, extroverts tend to tell more lies than introverts.

If you think you’re being lied to or wonder if the person you’re talking to is telling the truth, here’s a list of 10 key signs backed by science.

1. Changing the style of speech
One of the signs that a person may not be telling the whole truth is uneven speech. According to Gregg McCrary, a retired FBI profiler, a person’s voice and manner of speaking can change when they’re not telling the truth.

McCrary first follows his strategy of identifying the person’s normal speech and behavior patterns by asking typical, simple questions, such as what their name is or where they live. This allows him to see any change in speech or characteristics when he asks more complex, detailed questions.

2. Using gestures that do not match the content of speech
If a person says “yes” but shakes his head like he’s saying “no”, it may mean he’s not telling the truth. As Dr. Ellen Hendriksen, a clinical psychologist at the Center for Anxiety and Comorbid Disorders at Boston University, points out, non-speech gestures are body movements that do not match the words the person is saying. For example, if a person says “Of course I’m serious” and shakes his head slightly to the right and left, chances are that he is lying, or at least not telling the whole truth.

3. Nothing special.
When truth-telling witnesses describe what they saw and are asked, “Is there anything else?”, they reveal more details. But when liars are asked to go beyond the stories they have prepared, they add little to no additional detail.

Experts from the American Psychological Association (APA) call these people “silent liars” who, when asked to answer questions or provide more information, usually offer less than those who tell the truth.

Another way researchers test for truth is by asking people to tell the facts in reverse order. Those who tell the truth will stick to the same story while offering more details. Liars often stumble and create a different story without adding details to the original version of events.

4. Tells too much
On the other hand, researchers at the Harvard Business School found that liars who are trying to deceive “stretch the truth” by using too many words. Because such a liar can make things up as he goes, he tends to add unnecessary details to convince himself first and then others of what he is saying. They may also embellish their speech with words that a person telling the truth would not think to add.

Other linguistic evidence found in this study shows that liars tend to use more swear words and third-person pronouns (eg, he, she, they) to distance themselves from any confusion of first person (eg, me, mine).

5. Unusual rise or fall in the timbre of the voice
Dr. David Matsumoto, professor of psychology at San Francisco State University and CEO of Humintell, a consulting company that teaches people to “read” human emotions, stresses that researchers must consider another person’s culture when determining whether they are being lied to. For example, his research on lie detection showed that the Chinese tend to speak in a higher voice when they are lying. In contrast, Hispanics speak in a lower voice when they lie.

6. Where the eyes look
Much was discussed on the topic of truth and eye contact. A common cultural belief in the United States is that if a person avoids direct eye contact, they are lying. But in other cultures, direct eye contact may be considered unreliable in this context.

A study titled Eyes Don’t Lie, published in 2012 in the journal Plos One, debunked the idea that people look left or right when they lie. A 2015 study by the University of Michigan and published in Time magazine found that 70% of people in 120 multimedia video clips lied while making direct eye contact.

7. Cover your mouth or eyes with your hand
Many people want to hide a lie or hide from their reaction to it, so they may cover their eyes or mouth with their hands when they lie. According to former CIA agents in their book Spy of Lies, some may even close their eyes completely when telling lies. This can be especially true when you are asked to answer a question that does not require much memory usage.

8. Excessive preoccupation with secondary things while talking to you
Think about how a child behaves when asked where the last cookie went. He may lick his lips, examine his nails, or even move his hands unconsciously before telling a big lie.

According to former CIA employees, what happens is that the stress caused by the moment to respond causes blood to drain from their limbs. They may be unconsciously trying to calm this stress response, or at least get blood back into the limbs, all of which could be indicative of nervousness when they lie.

9. Point to another “culprit”.
Pointing at something or someone, with gestures or words, may indicate a certain desire to divert attention from yourself and shift the blame to someone else.

Of course, knowing if this person is used to gesturing or pointing frequently can be a useful baseline. However, if someone usually speaks in a measured way and suddenly begins to speak in more “aggressive” gestures, this indicates that he is lying.

10. Self-identifies as a “good liar”
Perhaps the easiest way to recognize a liar is to let him do it for you. A study titled “Lie prevalence, lie characteristics and strategies of self-reported good liars” published in 2019 in the journal Plos One showed that those who self-identify as “good liars” are usually a good indicator of that they… tell a lie, meaning they lie a lot in general.

This study showed that “good liars” mostly told small lies to colleagues and friends in person and focused on telling simple and understandable stories. The simple advice from this study is that if someone is bragging about being a good liar, don’t trust them.

PS These signs do not apply to professional liars: spies, professional swindlers and … politicians with lawyers. Most of them know how to lie so professionally that only such professionals can catch them. So my advice is to stay away from them.

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