New research suggests that, rather than going with our gut to know whether someone is being truthful or not, it is better to focus on a particular cue, like how hard someone has to think about what they’re saying or how much what they are saying squares with what we know to be true.
In general, studies find that the average person has a slightly better than even chance (54%) of detecting a lie from a stranger. This goes up to 60% for people who are trained. Of course, the closer you are to someone, the more likely it is you also know the “tells” that indicate that they are not being honest. Likewise, you can increase your skill by becoming aware of the general cues that often attend lying behavior. For instance…
- When questioned, deceptive people generally want to say as little as possible. Researchers initially thought they would tell an elaborate story, but the vast majority give only the bare-bones. Studies with college students, as well as prisoners, show this.
- Although deceptive people do not say much, they tend to spontaneously give a justification for what little they are saying, without being prompted.
- They tend to repeat questions before answering them, perhaps to give themselves time to concoct an answer.
- They often monitor the listener’s reaction to what they are saying. They try to read you to see if you are buying their story.
- They often initially slow down their speech because they have to create their story and monitor your reaction, and when they have it straight “will spew it out faster.” Truthful people are not bothered if they speak slowly, but deceptive people often think slowing their speech down may look suspicious. “Truthful people will not dramatically alter their speech rate within a single sentence.”
- They tend to use sentence fragments more frequently than truthful people; often, they will start an answer, back up and not complete the sentence.
- They are more likely to press their lips when asked a sensitive question and are more likely to play with their hair or engage in other “grooming” behaviors. Gesturing toward one’s self with the hands tends to be a sign of deception; gesturing outwardly is not.
- Truthful people, if challenged about details, will often deny that they are lying and explain even more, while deceptive people generally will not provide more specifics.
- When asked a difficult question, truthful people will often look away because the question requires concentration, while dishonest people will look away only briefly, if at all, unless it is a question that should require intense concentration.
There are actually three things that you can do to tease apart lies from the truth in those times that you aren’t sure whether someone is being completely honest…
- 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 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.
- Ask open-ended questions to get them to provide as many details and as much complete information as possible (“Can you tell me more about…?” “Tell me exactly…”). First ask general questions, and only then get more specific.
- Don’t interrupt, let them talk and use silent pauses to encourage them to talk.
The most important thing to remember is that trust is a critical part of healthy relationships. Whether or not you can “prove” wrongdoing on the other’s part, the feeling that you can’t trust, say, your spouse or your child, is a significant problem in and of itself that deserves attention. If you can’t figure out how to rebuild the trust in your relationships on your own, don’t wait. Seek professional help to heal the hurt before suspicion undermines the relationship altogether.