Learning How to Detect a Lie is Easier Than You Think
We ask a private detective, a body language expert and a polygrapher about spotting the telltale signs of deceit.
Illustrations by Ben Thomson
This article is presented by V Energy as part of VICE Australia/New Zealand's Mad Skills series
The human race has many positive attributes (probably) but honesty is not one of them. As a species, we lie all the time. All day, every day, without a second thought. About our age, our vegetarianism, our sexual relations with that woman, you name it. We say we're fine when we're devastatingly sad, we call in sick when we want a three day weekend, we tell our partners that we'll love them "forever" when we actually just mean "until next summer". It's despicable, really.
Once you start contemplating how many lies people—especially your supposed friends and loved ones—are telling you every day, it's natural to wonder how to detect them. Luckily, there are experts who spend their lives unravelling the tangled webs that we weave.
VICE asked them for their best lie-detecting tips.
A BODY LANGUAGE EXPERT
David Alssema is a body language expert who I am glad to be speaking with over the phone. He's able to decipher the true meaning of someone's words simply by assessing their eye contact and hand gestures. He is basically a mind reader, and it is quite scary.
"When it comes to detecting a lie, speech is a big indicator," Alssema says. "Hesitation in the voice, pausing, that's a lie. If things come out quite quickly, that basically indicates truth, but if people are taking a while to put their thoughts together then that's a lie."
Yet it's eye contact that's the biggest giveaway. Alssema explains that you can actually train yourself to figure out a liar in a matter of minutes if you learn to watch where they're looking.
What you need to know is that people's eyes will flick left or right, depending on whether they're remembering something, or constructing a false scenario. "You can profile your friends and work out which side they use for what," Alssema says.
"As you get to know the person you'll realise which side they remember things on, and which side they construct things on. So if they're telling the truth, it will come out quickly and on the 'remember' side. If it's a lie, you'll see their eyes go to the 'constructive' side."
To figure out which side is which, simply ask your companion three easy questions: how their day was, if they've been busy, and what they're doing on the weekend. "The first two questions are things that happened in the past, so they'll remember, and the third is a future event. So watch their eyes—because two answers will be remembered, one will be constructed," Alssema explains.
"Over time we get to know our friends and we'll pick all this up subconsciously. But if you've known someone for 30 seconds and you really want to work out whether they're going to tell the truth or not, these three questions help."
While you're honing this more advanced technique, there are other easier indicators to watch out for. If a liar thinks you're onto them, they'll typically touch or scratch the back of their neck. "That indicates uncertainty," Alssema says.
If they cover their eyes or mouth while speaking that quite possibly demonstrates a lie. Also touching the very edge of their nose—it's called the Pinocchio effect—because the blood rushes to the extremities of the face when you lie.
We're not endorsing it, but the logical conclusion of all this is not only to become a human lie detector, but also become a better liar yourself.
Avoid the telltale signs mentioned above, and you're basically inscrutable. Another way to earn trust, Alssema says, is to show your palms and have them facing outwards to the other person. "Don't hide your hands behind your back or put them in your pockets—look people in the eye, and don't overcompensate for anything," he advises.
A PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR
Former police detective Julia Robson is the director of Online Investigations, a private firm specialising in uncovering cheating spouses. While dishonest partners are a worst case scenario, they're also a depressingly common one. So we asked Robson, an expert in scumbags, to give us the warning signs.
Chatting to her, it becomes clear that uncovering a lying partner is actually extremely easy. Our gut instincts will alert us almost immediately if something has gone wrong in our relationship—but unfortunately, we'll do everything we can to ignore them.
"People don't come halfheartedly to an investigator," Robson says. "They essentially know that their partner is cheating, and more often than not they are. But both that person and their partner will continually deny that anything is going on." She says that even when confronted by photo and video evidence, both parties will be reluctant to admit the truth.
When you're in love, your first instinct is trust. You believe the best in your partner, because you have to. And even though other people will be less oblivious to your partner's indiscretions, they won't tell you anything—because they don't think it's their place.
"I had a client who, whenever she went to any work events with her husband, found the coworkers were always acting very strangely around her. Of course, as it transpired, it was well known amongst all the coworkers that he was having an affair with another staff member," Robson explains.
When it comes down to it, people in the honeymoon phase of an illicit relationship are extremely predictable, and Robson says all the cliches you hear about are true.
"They start buying new clothes, they join the gym, they're losing weight, brushing their hair more, making sure they're the best version of themselves," she says. "And sometimes that can mean that they have already met someone and they're wanting to improve their appearance, or perhaps they've just started looking."
Generally speaking, if you're dating or getting to know someone, of course you want to look like the best version of yourself. And that's no different if you're starting to cheat as well.
If your partner is acting weirdly, trust your gut. Something is probably wrong—Robson says that only one in fifty of her cases have a happy ending. And, honestly, I suspect she's just making this up so I feel better.
"Very, very rarely, you might find that the partner has actually been planning a surprise for the spouse. Say, a birthday party. And they've been sneaking off, making all these plans," she says. "But more often than not, we just confirm they are cheating. It's very rarely you'll have a positive story to relay back to a client."
Once you've ascertained that your partner probably is cheating on you, there's one final test. Confront them, and assess their response. "When confronted, a cheating partner will get very aggressive—that's a sign they're trying to hide something," Robson says.
"We always ask our clients to see what happens after. Does their behaviour change? Do they start spending a lot more time at home, stop going to the gym? These are the signs of guilt, that they're trying to cover their tracks and calm your suspicions."
The takeaway? If someone is acting like a cheater, they probably are one. People are awful.
After training as a polygrapher with the FBI, the LA Police Department, and the US Secret Service, Victorian homicide consultant Steve van Aperen had a realisation: you don't need a machine to detect dishonesty. "One day, I thought, 'Wouldn't it be great to have the skill set to work out when people were lying without the use of a polygraph?'," he explains. Having worked on over 77 homicide cases and two serial killer investigations, van Aperen now flies all over the world, teaching law enforcers how to detect lies without machines.
"Research shows that people are not very good or accurate at spotting lies: they only get it right around 49-53 percent of the time," he says. "The reason for this is that we're influenced by people and we often don't want to believe—especially with people who are close to us—that they would ever lie to us," he says.
But lie they do—and they easily get away with it, too. Working with polygraphs, van Aperen knows this first hand. "People don't 'beat' a lie detector test," he says. "The lie detector is just an instrument that records autonomic responses like heart rate, blood pressure, emotional sweating. What happens is that they instead beat the examiner, who doesn't recognise what's occurring or who doesn't formulate the questions correctly."
So in order to become human lie detectors, we have to watch our wording. "Your questions have to be very clear so it doesn't allow a deceptive person what I call 'wriggle room'," van Aperen explains. He gives an example—if you asked Bill Clinton whether he had a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky, he could say no and still beat a lie detector. This is because "relationship" is difficult to define, and Clinton might very well believe that his activities did not constitute one. Ask Clinton a more specific question about what he and Ms Lewinsky did together in the Oval Office, and he'd have a harder time responding in the negative.
The next step is to carefully monitor the person's words and body language—are they communicating in a believable way? Are they breaking up their words with lots of pauses, "ums" and "ahs"? When it comes to catching out a skillful liar, a polygrapher will watch patterns of speech very carefully.
Typically, what deceptive people will do is sidestep the issue. What they don't say is more important than what they do say.
A liar won't use personal pronouns or take ownership of an anecdote: ask them what they did yesterday and they'll say "Went to the shops" rather than "I went to the shops". Van Aperen gives the example of parents whose children have been abducted—if they're guiltless, they'll speak about the child in a personal way ("my daughter" as opposed to "the girl) and they'll also behave as though the child is still alive, as opposed to possibly dead or in danger. "They would always talk in present tense,in anticipation and hope" van Aperen says.
"Truthful people will not only tell you what happened but also what they thought and what their emotions are of those feelings. Deceptive people often won't do that; they'll just give you the story and they can't implicate themselves by showing emotion."
If you suspect someone is telling you a lie, keep pressing them for detail. Make like a homicide detective: ask them heaps of questions in a row. Every time they answer, they'll have to come up with another lie that doesn't contradict what was previously said—that's difficult, and the stress will show. "It's a lot of cognitive processing," van Aperen says. "I don't care how well-prepared somebody is in trying to portray a lie: they cannot possibly anticipate every question that I'm likely to ask them. They're fabricating or embellishing, they're creating a false memory that never existed."
Humans are actually natural lie detectors. If you trust your gut instincts, you can pretty easily suss out untrustworthy types. But sometimes, you don't want to trust your gut—especially if it's telling you that a friend or lover isn't being totally honest about something. Which is where detective work, body language, and speech monitoring comes into it: watch closely, because every teeny tiny gesture speaks volumes.
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