How to spot a liar
New study pinpoints signs of lies and deceit
Article by Hudson Lofchie
Published in The California Aggie (theaggie.org) on May 25th, 2011
People lie. Those who are gifted purveyors of deceit use their skills to gain advantage in business, political and social situations.
Scientists want to know how to spot these liars.
UCLA psychologists recently combined an analysis of 60 separate studies on lies and deception, as well as their own research, into a paper published in the American Journal of Forensic Psychiatry. The study will be a major component of interview training programs for detectives, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security.
Psychologist Edward Geiselman, along with three graduate students, identified many subtle indicators that someone is being deceptive.
“Although deceptive people do not say much, they tend to spontaneously give justification for what little they are saying without being prompted,” Geiselman said.
Among the most reliable signs that someone is lying are repeating questions before answering them, slowing their speech and using more sentence fragments than normal.
“These habits give a liar more time to monitor the listener’s reaction to what they are saying. They try to read if you are buying their story,” Geiselman said.
Other signs include pursed lips, playing with hair and gesturing toward one’s self.
Many people often train themselves to become better liars. Geiselman worked with former UCLA psychologist Ronald Fisher to develop a detection technique called a “cognitive interview” to trip up trained liars.
“A deceptive person, even a professional liar, is under a heavy cognitive load,” Fisher said.
Liars must simultaneously maintain their stories while monitoring the listener’s reaction to it.
Fisher and Geiselman’s cognitive interview is designed to push cognitive load over the limit, exposing contradictions and inconsistencies. One of the most effective techniques in the cognitive interview is to have subjects tell their story backwards. It is much harder for a liar to invent details on a reverse timeline.
Another technique is to ask open-ended questions, prompting interviewees to provide as much detail as possible. This technique exploits a liar’s natural aversion to excess detail.
Training individuals to detect lying is a tricky task. Training is extensive and trainees must have adequate practice to simulate real-world experiences.
“The average college student is only 53 percent accurate without training,” Geiselman said. “With abbreviated training, we often make things worse.”
Inadequate training leads individuals to over-estimate their abilities. This limited training often makes individuals worse at lie detection than if they go with their gut reactions.
Richard Robins, psychologist and head of the Personality, Self and Emotion Laboratory at UC Davis, has a theory for why people lie and brag.
“There is a general human need to feel accepted and valued by others,” Robins said. “For narcissistic individuals, bragging is often grossly exaggerated and self-aggrandizing.”
“Narcissistic individuals have an excessive need to have their worth constantly affirmed, which leads them to exaggerate their talents, skills and abilities in an attempt to elicit praise,” he said.
Bragging and pride have more physical clues than lying.
“The pride expression includes head slightly tilted back, expanded posture, arms akimbo with hands on hips and a small smile,” Robins said.
These interview techniques have already been used by the military to interdict insurgent activity in Iraq. Geiselman has also worked with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department to develop techniques for interviewing victims of child molestation.