Could you spot a liar? We all tell lies. In fact, studies show that lying is a part of our day-to-day interactions with most of us telling little white lies (such as, “You look great in that”) daily. In most cases it’s harmless enough, and used to maintain and preserve relationships or to get us out of trouble. But whilst most people think that they can spot a lie from a mile away, studies reveal that people are only 56 per cent accurate when it comes to picking up on deceit.
Heightened emotion is difficult to control and can take a lot of cognitive resources to hide successfully. However, fear can be triggered for many reasons other than lying. Particularly if the person feels intimidated or afraid of not being believed. This explains why so many people exhibit ‘guilty’ signals when they get pulled over by the police, even when they haven’t done anything wrong!
When it comes to detect deceit, it’s best to proceed with caution. Your body doesn’t lie, in fact your body sends out over 10,000 stimuli in every interaction that leaks information about how you’re feeling. However, deceit cues are often ignored, overlooked or misinterpreted, and whilst they give us an indication of how we’re feeling, they don’t tell us the why.
The first step to understanding body language is to trust your gut. Non-verbal communication is our first language, however, most people are a little bit rusty. From the day we were born we communicated nonverbally, using our gestures, body language, facial expressions, breathing and voice to give and receive love, nurturing and food.
Whilst coaching can help us hone in on our natural body language expert, simply connecting in to your body and ‘listening’ to what it’s telling you will help you to better understand yourself and others and the nonverbal messages that they’re sending you.
The next step is to look for a cluster of at least three to five simultaneous signals from the list below and avoid analysing one body part in isolation. Many body gestures can have multiple meanings so always consider the individual, situation, emotionally intensity and timing of the sign when putting the puzzle together, particularly when looking for deceit.
Timing is particularly important. Watch out for changes in non-verbal communication or increase in signs of anxiety, fear or stress before, during and after a particular line of questioning.
There is no sign for lying. What leakage and deceit cues actually tell is that the person feels nervous, afraid or uncomfortable (and not necessarily that they’re lying). Fear can be triggered for many reasons other than lying, particularly if the person feels intimidated or afraid of not being believed.
How people react when they lie also depends on the individual, emotional intensity, the situation and stakes. This is why it’s important to establish their baseline. The trick is to piece together the pieces of the puzzle to work out why they’re feeling that way.
In general the discomfort caused by telling a lie may lead to increases in distancing and blocking, blink rate, use of manipulators (or comforting gestures such as fidgeting and jiggling), pauses and speech errors and decreases in gestures, intimacy and eye contact. However, in some cases a liar may do the opposite in an attempt to overcompensate.
We subconsciously move towards people and situations we like and away from people and situations that make us feel uncomfortable. Keep an eye out for a hand or partial hand over the mouth or a nose as they speak in an attempt to ‘block’ out what they’re saying, eye blocks including averted gaze or palms that are hidden or thrust into their pockets. You may also notice signs of emotional or physical withdrawal.
The average relaxed blink rate is around 20 blinks per minute but this can increase dramatically when someone is psychologically aroused or if their thought processes speed up (perhaps to fabricate a lie). However, some liars show no fluctuation in blink rate, and other things such as sexual arousal and attraction can also lead to an increased fluttering of the lashes.
The face is directly connected to our Limbic or emotional brain making it difficult to keep your face relaxed when our emotions are heightened. However, our faces are a dual system and can produce facial expressions that lie and tell the truth (voluntary and involuntary) simultaneously, making detection difficult.
Emotional arousal causes facial muscles to fire, resulting in fleeting facial expressions or micro expressions that last only a fraction of a second. While these are often covered up by a smile (the easiest facial expression to make) or another emotion, expressions such as a sneer (a sign of contempt), quivering lip, or raised fear brow provide reliable clues, if you look closely enough. Micro-gestures such as flinching, facial blushing and twitching can also provide more accurate clues about emotion.
Disappearing lips and lip biting are a subconscious response to stress and anxiety, a reliable indication of negative emotion and that something is wrong. The more pronounced the downward turn of the mouth, the more distressed they are. But they’re not the only sign to look for, rubbing the tongue inside the mouth and licking of the lips are pacifying gestures used to comfort during times of stress, whilst lip pursing indicates disagreement. The tongue jut (the tongue protruding between the teeth without touching the lips) is also a good indicator that someone thinks they’ve gotten away with something or have done something naughty.
The legs and feet give us invaluable information about what someone is really feeling because they are one of the last body parts that we consciously control. Look for the ankle lock, a sudden leg cross in an attempt to block you, comforting gestures (such as twisting feet around the chair leg) and other signs of withdrawal, tension and jiggling.
Liars often experience deception apprehension or a fear of getting caught. If the stakes are high, this can trigger the fear response causing the liar to become frozen with fear, less animated and with minimal gesturing. However, for some people lying can result in the opposite effect, triggering over the top gesturing in an attempt to appear sincere.
Manipulators such as fidgeting, wringing of the hands, rubbing and restless body movements are often incorrectly associated with lying. However, manipulators (or comforting gestures) indicate discomfort and not necessarily deceit. The more uncomfortable we are, the more fidgeting, jiggling, touching and rubbing you’re likely to see.
A word of caution: Manipulators are easily controlled (although not for very long), vary greatly depending on the individual and may also be seen when someone’s relaxed and in the company of friends. So don’t jump to conclusions but rather use it as a indication to look a little deeper.
Emotional arousal causes many involuntary changes that can be difficult to control. Negative emotions such as fear, anger, guilt, shame and distress can stimulate the sympathetic system or fight and flight response causing increases in breathing rate and sweating. A decrease in saliva can also cause a dry mouth so look at for subconscious attempts to lubricate such as excessive swallowing.
Fear and stress can affect our ability to speak and think clearly, so keep an eye out for speech errors, slips of the tongue, convoluted answers laden with detail or indirect responses. But bare in mind, some people are easily flustered whilst some liars are just the opposite and can lie flawlessly with no signs of stress.
Like facial expressions, the voice is directly connected to our emotional brain, making it a good indicator of negative or positive emotion. Pitch is the best vocal indicator of emotion, with studies showing that for 70 per cent of people, pitch becomes higher when they’re upset. But emotion can also affect speech speed and the amount of pauses used. Faster, louder speech is often associated with fear and anger, whereas speech that is slow and soft is associated with sadness. Long pauses before an answer or frequent long or short pauses may indicate that they’re nervous, unprepared or trying to buy time as they fabricate a story.