Agata Marszalek for Reader's DigestWE’VE GOT A DECEPTION EPIDEMIC, says certified fraud examiner Pamela Meyer. She is the CEO of Calibrate, a Washington, DC, company that trains people in the legal, insurance, financial, and college admissions fields in the art of lie spotting. She’s got pockets full of secrets for identifying—and understanding—fibbers. Here she reveals some of them.
RD: Why do we often fail to recognize a liar?
PM: We think liars fidget all the time, but many freeze their upper bodies because they’re busy concentrating on their lies. We also think that a liar won’t look you in the eye, but he makes eye contact more than most people do because he’s overcompensating. However, one indicator isn’t proof that someone is lying—it’s important to look for a cluster of signals.
A liar often smiles subtly while telling a lie; it’s an unconscious expression of his delight in getting away with a whopper. There’s a famous photo in which Adolf Hitler was smiling while talking to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain at the meeting where Hitler concealed that he’d already mobilized his army to attack Poland. Other signs are when a person makes big changes in posture, like slumping in his chair or looking down. There are also verbal signals. Someone may repeat a question to stall for time. A liar may swear on the Bible or his mother’s grave that he didn’t do something; it’s what I call overconvincing or overpersuading. A person giving too much detail in a story is another example.
You’ve also said that a liar doesn’t tell a story in the same way that an honest person does.
A liar frequently cuts his ending short and doesn’t express emotion while telling his story. A person telling the truth isn’t likely to end his story abruptly, and he tends to express a lot of emotion at the end of it. He also doesn’t usually tell a story in chronological order; he jumps around a little, according to what is most prominent in his memory.
What can you do to “out” a liar?
Ask someone to tell his or her story backward. That way, you raise the cognitive load—you make the situation more challenging for him. A liar doesn’t rehearse telling his or her story backward. A person’s mental energy will get depleted by trying to act composed and spontaneous in spite of these demands, and involuntary expressions and gestures will leak out.
Lying is so common in our everyday lives. Research shows spouses lie to each other in one out of every ten interactions. Why do we lie so much?
A large portion of lies are white lies: “No, honey, you don’t look fat in that.” We also fib because we want to avoid uncomfortable moments, so we say things like “I’ll call you,” when we don’t plan to, or “It’s not you, it’s me.” But often, a liar doesn’t lie outright; he just avoids answering questions. Or he minimizes—that is, frames what he’s being asked about as less significant than it may have been. So a spouse who’s minimizing might say, “I did take Susie for a drink last night, but it was nothing; we had to go over expense reports.”
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Is minimizing always a lie?
No. It can be one indicator of lying, but sometimes it’s necessary to clarify a misunderstanding.
Who do you think is the biggest liar in recent history?
Bernie Madoff, because so many people were taken in by him and the scale of his crimes was so significant. He was questioned at least four times in front of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission without being caught, so it tells you not only something about human nature but also how willing people were to believe what he was telling them.
Yes, you’ve said that we’re all hungry for certain things in an interaction and by figuring out what we’re hungry for, we can avoid being deceived. Can you explain?
I’m talking about blind spots. If you’re in financial trouble, you may be more susceptible to a get-rich-quick scheme. Or if you’ve been single for a while and someone tells you how gorgeous you are, you might be more likely to fall for him. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to hear these things—but the intensity of your desire to believe it could cause you to read a situation incorrectly. After a breakup or after leaving a job, people often say, “I knew from the start it wouldn’t work.” They ignore their misgivings because they want so much to be in that relationship.
So how can we go about creating more honesty in our lives?
It’s about developing a network of trust around you. Study after study shows that people are much less likely to lie to a person they consider to be honest. You can open a conversation by saying, “It’s really important to me that we’re having an honest communication,” or by sharing something personal. Or you can close your talk by asking, “Is there anything else you want to tell me?”
You train people to detect fraud. Who makes a good lie detector?
Good listeners who are truly curious about human behavior. A good lie detector doesn’t jump to conclusions but tries to understand the person across the table, her personality, and her motivations. Your goal as a lie spotter isn’t to point the finger and say, “You’re lying”—your goal is to get to the truth. You want to convince the person that you’re pursuing facts and that you understand why she did what she did. People get defensive when they feel that the person interviewing them is acting morally superior to them, because we all like to think we’re honest.
Are you able to tell when your own husband, child, or friend is lying?
[Laughs] I can’t because I love them, so I don’t ever see them as liars. I’m much better with everyone else.
Tell us about a time when you caught one of them in a lie.
I have a five-year-old daughter, and she’s not supposed to have candy after she brushes her teeth. I put her to bed one night, and she kept urging me to go into the bathroom. I did, and when I looked in on her afterward, I discovered she’d hidden a candy cane under her pillow.
How did you find out?
I caught her unwrapping it!
Click here to watch Pamela Meyer’s TED talk “How to Spot a Liar”
More: Parenting, RelationshipsPsychology, Relationship Advice, The Human Brain
One of my guilty pleasures is the long-running TV show "NCIS," a drama focused on the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. The hero is Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs, a former Marine and disciplined detective with an uncanny ability to observe and interrogate criminal suspects. He doesn't say much or display much emotion in the interrogation room -- indeed, his cool demeanor is his trademark -- yet he is a keen lie-spotter.
Psychological scientists are fascinated by real-life versions of the fictional Gibbs. Detecting lies and liars is essential to effective policing and prosecution of criminals, but it's maddeningly difficult. Most of us can spot barely more than half of all lies and truths through listening and observation -- meaning, of course, that we're wrong almost as often as we're right. A half-century of research has done little to polish this unimpressive track record.
But scientists are still working to improve on that, and among them is cognitive psychologist Aldert Vrij of the University of Portsmouth, in the U.K. Vrij has been using a key insight from his field to improve interrogation methods: The human mind, despite its impressive abilities, has limited capacity for how much thinking it can handle at any one time. So demanding additional, simultaneous thought -- adding to cognitive "load" -- compromises normal information processing. What's more, lying is more cognitively demanding than telling the truth, so these compromised abilities should show up in detectable behavioral clues.
Why is lying more demanding? Well, imagine for a few minutes that you're guilty of a murder, and Gibbs is cross-examining you. To start, you need to invent a story, and you also have to monitor that tale constantly so that it's plausible and consistent with the known facts. That takes a lot of mental effort that innocent truth-tellers don't have to spend. You also need to actively remember the details of the story you've fabricated, so that you don't contradict yourself at any point. Remembering a fiction is much more demanding than remembering something that actually occurred.
That's just to start. Because you're naturally worried about your credibility, you're most likely trying to control your demeanor. Surprisingly, "looking honest" saps mental energy. And what's more, you're not just monitoring yourself; you're also scanning Gibbs' face for signs that he's seeing through your lie. Like an actor, you have the mental demands of staying in character. And finally, you have to suppress the truth so that you don't let some damning fact slip out, another drain on your mind's limited supply of fuel. In short, telling the truth is automatic and effortless, and lying is the opposite of that. It's intentional, deliberate and exhausting.
So how can Gibbs exploit the differing mental experiences of liars and truth-tellers? Here are a few strategies that Vrij and his colleagues have been testing in the laboratory, which they describe in the most recent issue of the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science.
One intriguing strategy is to demand that suspects tell their stories in reverse. Narrating backward increases cognitive load because it runs counter to the natural forward sequencing of events. It also disrupts the normal reconstruction of past events using mental schemas, which give coherence to isolated events. Since liars already have depleted cognitive resources, they should find this unfamiliar mental exercise more taxing than truth-tellers do -- which should increase the likelihood that they will somehow betray themselves. And in fact, that's just what happens in the lab: Vrij ran an experiment in which half the liars and truth-tellers were instructed to recall their stories in reverse order. When observers later looked at videotapes of the complete interviews, they detected more clues to deceit in the liars who were burdened by this mental task. Indeed, observers correctly spotted only 42 percent of the lies in the control condition -- way below average, which means they were hard to spot -- but a remarkable 60 percent when the liars were compromised by the reverse storytelling.
Another strategy for increasing liars' cognitive burden is to insist that suspects maintain eye contact. When people have to concentrate on telling their story accurately -- which liars must, more than truth-tellers -- they typically look away to some motionless point, rather than directly at the conversation partner. That's because keeping eye contact is distracting, and makes narration more difficult. Vrij also tested this strategy in the lab, and again observers detected more clues to deceit in those who were required to look the interrogator in the eyes.
NCIS Special Agent Gibbs may be a fictional version of what psychological scientists call "wizards"-- those rare people who have extraordinary lie-detection skills. Researchers have been trying, without a lot of success, to unravel these wizards' strategies, but until do, less sophisticated lie-catchers may be able to exploit the mind's cognitive weaknesses to catch the bad guys in their web of lies.
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