How to Catch a Liar (or Become a Really Good One)


I’d like to think that I’m pretty good at spotting a liar. Like this morning, when I went to grab some ice cubes for my cold brew and there was only ONE CUBE left between BOTH TRAYS and I said to the 10-year-old, “Did you put the ice cube trays back in the freezer with only one ice cube left?” and she looked at me with those enormous eyeballs and said, “It wasn’t me!” but I KNEW IT WAS HER because I saw her getting ice water just before everyone went to bed last night, and anyway she fucking loves ice cubes and hates filling up the ice cube tray, which is the most criminal combination of ice cube behaviors. Can’t pull one over on old Lindy West, Ice Detective.

But so what? So I can catch a child in an obvious and relatively harmless fib. But can I catch a grown-up smartypants with an agenda and a lifetime of experience? That seems like a much more useful (and potentially trickier) skill to master. I did pretty well spotting the liars on this NYT test, but not as well as I thought I would. Some liars are obvious, but some are slick. Turns out, reading the body language of complete strangers is complicated.

Eric Barker, writing in The Week, compiled some of the best tactics for detecting lies. It’s not nervousness that you should be watching out for—some people are completely comfortable with lying, and some, as Barker notes, are so entrenched in their own lies that they feel true—but rather “cognitive load.” Lying requires thinking, heavy and quick.

It’s worth reading the whole thing (helpful for aspiring liars too, I suppose!), but here are a few of the more illuminating highlights:

When nervous we blink our eyes more often, but we blink less under increasing cognitive load (for example when solving arithmetic problems). Recent studies of deception suggest that we blink lesswhen deceiving — that is, cognitive load rules. Nervousness makes us fidget more, but cognitive load has the opposite effect. Again, contra-usual expectation, people often fidget less in deceptive situations. And consistent with cognitive load effects, men use fewer hand gestures while deceiving and both sexes often employ longer pauses when speaking deceptively. [The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life]
In addition, there is also evidence that they distance themselves from the lie, causing their language to become more impersonal. As a result, liars often reduce the number of times that they say words such as “I,” “me,” and “mine,” and use “him” and “her” rather than people’s names. [59 Seconds: Change Your Life in Under a Minute]
Have people tell their story backwards, starting at the end and systematically working their way back. Instruct them to be as complete and detailed as they can. This technique, part of a “cognitive interview” Geiselman co-developed with Ronald Fisher, a former UCLA psychologist now at Florida International University, “increases the cognitive load to push them over the edge.” A deceptive person, even a “professional liar,” is “under a heavy cognitive load” as he tries to stick to his story while monitoring your reaction.

Barker also notes that smart, creative people make the best liars, and “you can tell how smart your child is by how early they start lying.”

And no, dear parents, despite what you may tell yourself you’re not very good at discerning when your kid is lying.


Image via Phil McDonald/Shutterstock.

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